Who is Tracy Lee and what I learned from her?

The story behind my brief hiatus

Its been a while since I wrote here (about 8 weeks to be precise) - but it is with good reason. I delivered a baby girl on Feb 19th, 2015 (named her Anika :)). Hence, this short break from blogging & popups for these past couple of months.

Now I am back in the grind. I have been pondering on what topic I must first write about, on my return... and one particular topic that has been brewing in my mind for quite sometime popped up right away.

It is  about a woman entrepreneur I admire and whose journey I have been following and deriving a lot of inspiration from.

And so, with the becoming a mom of a daughter myself, what better time to celebrate and write about strong, ambitious, note-worthy women?

Who is Tracy Lee?

For the past 2-3 years I have been closely following the journey of a an amazing, dynamic, 'go-getter' woman entrepreneur named Tracy Lee.

I first came to hear about Tracy when I saw a deal for a food  event organized by a firm - Dishcrawl. Being a big fan of trying new food spots, fresh, innovative menus and new cuisines, I was very impressed by Dishcrawl's concept. To describe in a nutshell, Dishcrawl organizes food crawls similar to pub crawls. Their main focus is to get people from a neighborhood/community to get together and try out new and fun food/drink spots in their neighborhood. And in the process,  people get to know each other and the businesses get to sell/market their brand. What a fun idea! Isn't this something we would all want and like to do - whether in our own neighborhood or during a vacation? 

Except that, Tracy Lee actually went ahead and did it for all of us!

So, I was very curious and intrigued to find out for myself, about the woman behind the name and fame of Dishcrawl and (her most recent venture) Wingman.

Without any more delays, here I present, the wonderful conversation I had with Tracy. It was a great interaction due to several reasons. First and foremost, Tracy L-O-V-E-S food, and if you have not noticed, I am quite passionate about food myself. Secondly, the woman has a fantastic taste for beverages too. D-uh! @proudoenophile, wine pairings - remember? :)  Jokes aside, our conversation was also about Tracy's family, personal background, her belief system, her ever growing and driven entrepreneurial spirit!

So here you go!

Tracy Lee, CEO Wingman, Dishcrawl

Tracy Lee, CEO Wingman, Dishcrawl

Interview with Tracy Lee - CEO of Wingman &  Dishcrawl

-A fun, intelligent conversation with Tracy on topics about her personal life, her parents and passion.

Q: I have read your blogs at ladyleet.com. There is so much inspiration and motivation that I obtain from so many topics on your blog, like - "Conquer The Voice That Screams Failure And Get To Success", Get to Success looking like an Idiot and so on... 

What do you attribute to your constant urge to pursue your dreams and your amazing drive to follow your heart?

Tracy:  Part of it is just personality. I just really like to do things that make an impact on the world. I am really passionate about the projects I take on, though I'm not sure where the passion comes from - I think its just something that's inside me. I work many many hours to achieve my dreams, which I'm fine with. Part of the reason why that is okay with me is because growing up, I watched my parents constantly work on the computer during late hours. I fell in love at a young age and thought we'd be together forever. After we broke up, I was so heartbroken that I had to dive in to something to get over the breakup. So I started 3 companies and now this is where I am.


Q. In your website, ladyleet.com there is a tag line that states:  "Finding puzzle pieces and putting them together. Maximizing serendipity". I have heard you mention serendipity in other places, interviews etc. too. What is your fascination with serendipity?

Tracy: I think what makes successful people successful is finding the different pieces around you and turning nothing in to something. Looking at opportunities in different ways. One example is, I am doing kick boxing right now. I am looking at kick boxing and thinking, do I want to pay $150 every month - no, not really (laughs). What can I do to help a business grow and help it grow my business instead of paying the $150? I do a lot of social media consulting through Wingman - so the difference between an entrepreneur and non-entrepreneurial person is, an entrepreneurial person is always thinking about something completely outside the realm of what's normal. So some people will just go about kick boxing, but I go and wonder how I can find a business opportunity. Its that type of mentality. If you take pieces from your life and find ways to maximize the connections between them - then hopefully you will be successful in some way.


Q. So, in some part do you attribute to the fact that the universe conspires for your success - if you work hard and are passionate about something?

Tracy:  If you approach life with a positive outlook or if you approach life thinking you are going to succeed, then you will. But if you approach life like 'Oh my God, I don't know if I can do this' or if you are unsure of yourself, then nothing is ever going to happen in your favor.


Q. First, you were at a job in Brocade that you quit for a great, thriving business model like Dishcrawl. Now you are CEO of Wingman - what do you say to yourself to keep pushing the envelop?

Tracy:  The key is to find out what you are passionate about. Everyone makes decisions. I made a decision that I want to go corporate, because I really wanted to make a difference. And I was very passionate about it. So I went in to Brocade and within 3 weeks when I found out that I could not make a difference, so I started 3 companies to see which would succeed. Then I focused on what I was most passionate about - and that was Dishcrawl. And I have been fortunate enough to be allowed the ability to do what I'm passionate about. Probably one of the biggest reasons people fail is because, they spend too much time trying to make the best decision. Whereas, if you just make it, you are going to either succeed or fail, and then you make the next decision. That's how you can progress through life faster and have a better chance of success.


Q. Scrappy startup, Dishcrawl or Wingman - did these ideas evolve over gradual progression or an overnight epiphany ?

Tracy: It was definitely a progression. I did scrappy startups, because I went to this event and wanted to throw an event similar to it. That sort of led me to be in the startup world. Then I was at a conference, which led to Dishcrawl, and then that took off. In building Dishcrawl, we saw a need in the market for corporations to do what we were doing. So that became Wingman. It's about taking what's working in one portion of your life and applying it to the rest of your life.


Q. What is Wingman? How is this going to impact Dishcrawl?

Tracy: Wingman is actually the parent company of Dishcrawl. With Dishcrawl we expanded very quickly and we were a consumer facing product. Through its success scaling in to multiple markets we realized that, there was also an opportunity where a lot of corporations wanted to be like Yelp and have tons of communities everywhere. So the infrastructure that we built with Dishcrawl, we started using that for other companies. In building Dishcrawl it was mostly sales & marketing - brand awareness in a local market. So we saw that there was a big need for corporations to do sales, marketing and build their brand in the local market. So we help companies do much larger scale events than Dishcrawl - to doing local focussed events. So with Wingman, corporations could want a Popup Fashion show or a beer tasting or just a huge holiday party. We focus on the experience. For example, if you want to go bowling, we see how we can elevate the experience for our clients.


Q. I have seen a lot of emphasis on your writing and interviews about empowering women and how you chose to face fear and meet success head on rather than second guess yourself. Do you have any advice for female entrepreneurs on how to go about this every time they have doubts about themselves, or their capabilities?

Tracy:  You know, we have to know what our strengths are and how to use them. So if you are really pretty and you are talking to a bunch of men, that can benefit you. I mean you should not try to hide it. We have these pre conceived notions of how we are supposed to be - but if we are just who we are, and we own it, that will benefit us. It is difficult being a woman. Even as a female we have the bias - that is just how the society works. This one time, I was talking to a male venture capitalist and he passed me to another female and I thought that was his assistant. I would have never thought that if I was passed to another male. So we are kind of perpetuating it and have to be aware so we don't make the same mistakes again. I will never make that mistake again.

Anytime you see yourself questioning something, just do it. The answer should just be YES. Anytime you feel like there is a bias, either pretend like its not happening or confront it head on. Its worse to crawl away in to a shell. Sometimes we just need to figure out what the outcome is, one way or the other. 


8. Define success.  

Tracy:  Oh, I don't know. I think success is what makes you happy. I don't think it is a dollar amount. What is going to make you happy in life? What are your goals? Not the ones your parents tell you about or what the industry dictates. But what you want to do with your life and how you want to shape it. And as long as you try and achieve that and are on that path of happiness, then you will be successful. 


We have now come to the end of the first part of my interview. Next, I asked Tracy a bunch of rapid fire questions - that only required quick, spontaneous responses without having to think more than a few seconds.


Q: If there is one thing you can eat for the rest of your life, what would that be?

Tracy: I don't know, I am foodie you can't ask me that (laughs). Dumplings, definitely! 


Q: Absolute favorite food spot in the bay area?

Tracy: Lure & Till in Palo Alto.


Q: Favorite drink?

Tracy: Jeff Morgenthaler amaretto sour.


Q: Your role model?

Tracy: My mom.


Q: Your strength & Weakness?

Tracy: Strength: My determination; Weakness: I am not as analytical as I'd like to be.


Q: Dishcrawl is a great way for people to unwind. How do you unwind?

Tracy: I eat (laughs).


Q: The most difficult thing you had to do?

Tracy: There are so many. But, I really hate firing people.


Q: If you were told you were going to be abandoned in an island and can take just one thing with you what would that be?

Tracy: My boyfriend.


Q: If Dishcrawl never happened, what would you be doing?

Tracy: Would be in another business. 


Q: One word that describes you the best?

Tracy: Passionate


So what did I learn from Tracy?

My biggest takeaway from talking to Tracy is, there are a lot of us that are being 'armchair' entrepreneurs. We like to dream, some of us even want very badly to pursue it. But, there is NO SUBSTITUTE for "acting" upon it. It seemed like, Tracy is the epitome of this sentence I once read in a book that changed my life. The sentence goes: "Life rewards action". That is right, there are dreams, and then there is action. Dreams can stay dreams or worse, be forgotten - unless we choose to act upon them.

On that note, I wish to share a video that always gives me the motivation and direction on how I see my own life's purpose - "Stay hungry, stay foolish".

Cheers! :)


Meeting with the creators of Fat Angel

The Story of Fat Angel

Fat Angel is one of my absolute favorite hangout spots and wine bars in the city of San Francisco. They have a fantastic wine and beer selection along with a very warm & cozy interior and a vibrant exterior. If you live in the vicinity of San Francisco or happen to visit the bay area, Fat Angel is a must not miss gem.

So, when I chanced upon the opportunity to meet the men behind Fat Angel - of course I jumped on it!

Below I share a very fun, honest and inspiring conversation with them on a typical San Francisco evening - outside their fabulous establishment.

Without further delay, I share below my interview with the owners of Fat Angel, Cyrick Hia and Jason Kirmse.

1)     I have followed the journey of Fat Angel from its very early days. And I know there were a lot of hurdles for you but you successfully got through them and opened this awesome space. What was the most difficult problem(s) before Fat Angel opened and what would you do differently if you could get a do over?

Cyrick: Retaining the knowledge that we have now, for me personally, I would say that finding a general contractor that fits our personalities... that would the biggest thing I would have done.

Jason: This is an interesting question because, I am a firm believer that what happens, happens for a reason. Looking back, all the dysfunction was a huge learning and growing experience. That said, I would say that we were on a tight budget. We bootstrapped this (Fat Angel) ourselves, we took no investors and did it all on our own. We did not have a choice or someone to call for a $60,000 check to write to someone who could work on this space, exactly the way we wanted and finish up on time. So when this contractor came in with the lowest bid we thought 'Wow! that’s really cheap'. So that is why now I tell everyone, get 3 bids – don’t take the first one that’s the cheapest, but the one that makes most sense and then keep your fingers crossed.


2)     Before Fat angel you had no restaurant background, correct?

Jason: I worked as a server in restaurants in college, but I had no experience managing restaurants. So waiting tables is all the experience I had with restaurants.

Did that matter? How important is it to have prior knowledge in the day to day operations of an establishment like yours to be successful?  

Jason: No, its all about passion. What interests me is wine, what interests Cyrick is hospitality, what interests both of us is food. It is more about taking up the passion for something, taking up the vision with courage and stepping in to actually do it. People then see that, people feel that passion; they understand and even give you some room to mess up if you are not perfect. What we learned we had to learn quickly and we ran it ourselves for 2 years. Cyrick had a history of hospitality and he was all smiles when people came in and they felt that. That is what did it for us. People saw us and go ‘Wow these 2 guys are here every time we come here' and you don’t see that a lot.

Cyrick: It also helped when we told everybody that came in, we don’t actually have a lot of experience, this is the first time we are doing something like this. And a lot of people had a lot fun with us too! I let people know that I might be doing something wrong and with that we built a foundation for regulars and friends and actually built a community.


3)    Other than these pre-open troubles, I have heard of one story - about how you tried to recruit a chef from Asia and build this space just for his food, but that did not pan out. Is this a true story? If yes, how did you deal with pivoting from your original plan that was so dear to you?

Jason: Yeah, it was going to be a hand stretched noodle shop – nobody had done it in San Francisco and it was well ahead of its time. Well, we walk in to everything with a plan B, right? There needs to be a contingency plan. I think smart people always have that. You are spending your own money and you have to think to yourself ‘If this does not work then what happens?’ If nobody walks in to the door, can we pay rent?

Your head just starts going about the ‘what-ifs’. Definitely there is an emotional aspect to things, but there is a fear of being able to pay your rent and the fear of failure that just trumps everything else. So we said, we are opening a wine bar – and that was our plan B.

 Cyrick: I actually went to China, getting recipes and visiting all these chefs. So plan A, part 2 would have been for me to learn the set of skills to hand stretch noodles and bring it back here if we cannot get the chef. And I would be the one doing all that work, but this chef had been doing this for 16 years and I had 3 and a half weeks to learn what he had for a decade and half of experience. So quickly we realized plan A part 2 was not feasible.

That said, we still have plans to do something like the hand stretched noodle shop in the future.


4)     There are so many wine and beer places in the city - several of them just barely get by or worse, they fail. What is the secret to your success of Fat Angel? Can you attribute (preferably) to ONE major factor? Location? Quality of food/drinks? Service? Anything else?

 Jason: You are just missing one thing. You hit all three of what we call the 4 pistons of power, except one. And that is value. Most people are able to do one or two of those four things. But my humble, not-so-humble opinion is people cannot hit on all of 4 of those.


5) What do you mean by value?

Jason: For instance, our salads - they are as big as your head. When people get a salad, they go ‘wow! that is a huge salad. That is real.’ You are not getting a plate that is $12 that you can finish in 4 bites. Portion size is something that I am very adamant about We are not going to under portion. We want people to walk out of here feeling like, I am full, I have a buzz and had a great time. We can save money with smaller portions, serving lesser wines & beers and employer less staff. But, that is not what we want. So that’s it.


Jason Kirmse (left) & Cyrick Hia (right) - owners of Fat Angel posing in front of their bar.

Jason Kirmse (left) & Cyrick Hia (right) - owners of Fat Angel posing in front of their bar.

6)    I have visited several wine/beer hangouts in the city; especially with wine/beer, the list is so similar across so many bars. Fat Angel has a great list. Is it so hard to source some amazing wines from Portugal, Spain and Northern Italy that are not to be seen in California? Or beers for that matter?

Jason: We are very fortunate in San Francisco with so many options that we have with wine reps and wine distributors. That said, there is a tremendous amount of wine out there in places like Europe that don’t even get here. And even the ones that do hit the States, get to the east coast first. It does not go through the Panama Canal and get to the west coast. It gets to New York, Boston and what’s remaining gets sourced to the west coast. Likewise you don’t see many Californian wines in New York for instance. That said, everyone has access to the same kinds of wine, but it is a tremendous amount of work to bring in wines that are not easily accessible to our bars here in San Francisco.

Also, I would make the relationships first, so when you bring the wines that you want to bring, you’ve already established a network. 


7)     There are a lot of people who say (both in and outside the food/drinks business) that you should absolutely NOT get in to this business because of all the physical, mental and financial turmoil and how unforgiving it can be. What is most rewarding for you about this business? And what would you like to see change?

 Cyrick: For me, I have actually met many friends just working at Fat Angel. After college, social groups tend to get smaller, people get married, have kids, some people move away and your circle gets smaller and smaller. But, while working at Fat Angel, I’ve met several regulars on a daily basis, made friends and we hang out. I’ve even brewed beer with some of these people. I’ve never done something like that before and that was a lot of fun. So my circle of friends actually got bigger. And also, I got more in tune with the industry because other folks from the industry come in and my social circle got bigger very quickly. That was the biggest and most rewarding thing for me.

Jason: For me, I like environments, I like space, I like creating a space. What I enjoy is creating an environment for people to come in to. I like worrying about the details, worrying about the kind of flowers we use, the lighting, and the product space, that things are dust free – that’s what keeps me going. I like sitting at Fat Angel, just looking at it, watching people having a good time, and you sit back and go ‘I was part of this and we built this from scratch’. It’s great, and it carries over to other things in life. It’s the feeling you get from being in an atmosphere that speaks to you and resonates with you.

I know we nailed it with Fat Angel, it is a great space – very cozy and warm, soft lights and good colors. That is why it is a great first date spot. People run their e-harmony game out of here all the time and that is fun too (laughs).


8) And what would you like to change with this industry?

Jason: The big topic now is minimum wage, labor, tipping and all that. I will be honest, its just crazy. I just wish we would convert to the European method. Pricing everything on the menu, 'Here’s your check, thank you very much and have a great night'. We want to pay people well, but there is definitely inequality in wages between the front and back of the house. In Fat Angel, our Back of the House also gets tipped because they work the floor-which is great. But, with all the increase in wages there is going to be backlash, prices are going to be increased and you are kind of back where you are at. So we don’t know what the right answer is.

Cyrick: And the worst thing is, that might or might not drive traffic from outside the city. Because, now San Francisco is more expensive and so when we have tourists, they are going to spend a little less.


9) Related to everything you both have said, right now San Francisco is at the most expensive point it’s been from rents, labor etc. to the point where, both resources and establishments are moving outside the city. You own 2 successful restaurants in this city. What is your advice to someone who'd like to start his or her own food/drinks place in this city at a time like now?

Jason: I would say, just do it! Anybody who quits their corporate job and does what they are passionate about, I am their biggest cheerleader.  We all have to roll the dice at some point and go big or go home. What is life about if you’re not taking risks and taking chances?

Cyrick and I were making good money doing what we did. We moved in together, ate rice and some Vietnamese meat and we were on a crazy budget. That was a lot of sacrifice. Sometimes you have to get uncomfortable and when you do make it, you look back and you have a lot of amazing stories to tell.


10)     A lot of times, running your own business or being an entrepreneur can be nerve wracking - especially the first few years until established and profitable. Any tips on how to stay calm and keep up the right attitude to get through each of those days?

 Cyrick: You just have to roll with it.

 Jason: I don’t know, life’s hard. And when we do have a tough day we think, 50% of this business is ‘my’ tough day and 50% of it is ‘his’ (pointing to Cyrick) tough day. And it’s a little bit sweeter even on tough days when you’re working your own deal. There is something liberating about that. Today we had an employee not show up, another server call in sick and all these things happen. Four years ago all of this was a big deal, but now everything that used to be a big deal is just a blip on the radar. Someone doesn’t show up, I put an apron on and it is done. Nothing goes per plan and so accepting what is and having the resources to call makes all the difference.      


11)    Once you're established and profitable, how do you 'let go' of your baby?

Cyrick: It was very hard.

Jason: We had to learn. When we first handed over the keys to our first Front Of the House employee, it was quite difficult. But we had our system, checks and balances - so that helps.  And the things that we used to think were big aren’t that big. If you get a bad Yelp review, you say to yourself 'They happen' and you don’t take it personally but try to learn from it and not wreck your world.


12) What would your career look like if not for Fat Angel?

Cyrick: I would probably still be in real estate business. We never thought about doing our own thing, but we came to a point where I had a boss that caused the company culture to shift when he came aboard. And I wanted to do something and Jason & I started talking. That’s how this idea came about. Otherwise, I’d probably still be doing what I used to be doing.

Jason: I always wanted to own my own business. I did the corporate America thing from the time I graduated from college. I would tell my son, you can start your own business, but there is something to be learned from working in a corporate culture and working for a boss. But I would never go back and be in the corporate world but running my own business. We just happened to land on the food business, it was not something we always set out to do. It was just something we thought would be cool and I just wanted to always own my own business.

 I then wrapped up my talk thanking Jason & Cyrick for a wonderful chat along with a nice click with both of them in front of beautiful Fat Angel's bar. 


Driving back home, I was thinking how it is a huge deal to own one successful food space that is 5 years old along with a second highly raved spot (Stone's Throw) that has completed one year! These are impressive milestones in this industry and in this city. All the way home Jason's words kept ringing in my mind....."It is all about passion. It is about taking up the passion for something, taking up the vision with courage and stepping in to actually do it.".

Words to live by, don't you think?