The Surprise Business Lesson I Learned from Top Chef

6 March 2017 | 10 Comments

I’ve watched about 10 seasons of the competitive cooking show, Top Chef, but it wasn’t until the recent finale that I learned the true secret to success on the show.

The finale branched over two episodes. In part 1, the contestants were required to cook over an open flame. Worried that her fish would stick to the grill, Brooke put a few pieces on the grill early on as a test. When her concerns were validated, she wrapped her fish in leaves and cooked it that way instead. The judges proclaimed that her fish was perfectly cooked, and they scolded another contestant for not testing the flame.

In part 2, much ado was made about the shopping choices made by both contestants. Brooke forgot to order the pork belly she wanted, but she had also ordered prime rib just in case. Shirley ordered suckling pigs, and she had pork belly as a backup.

Being a great cook is important, but like anyone else, you’re going to have good days and bad days. Sometimes the grill is going to be too hot. Sometimes the ingredients aren’t going to be as tasty as they looked in the store. To rise to the top, the best chefs have backup plans.


I think this lesson applies beyond Top Chef to entrepreneurs, crowdfunders, and others. It’s been on my mind a lot since I watched the finale. How have backup plans benefited Stonemaier Games? In what areas do I not have backup plans?

Here are a few examples of backup plans I’ve had in place:

  • When I quit my day job to work for Stonemaier full time, I had enough money saved up to survive for a year just in case things didn’t work out. My backup plan was to then find another normal day job.
  • Whenever I tried something new on a Kickstarter campaign (like, say, social media achievements), I went into it knowing that it might simply not work out. It might be too confusing or uninspiring. The backup plan was usually to revert to something more familiar. I had to implement those backup plans several times, including on Day 3 of Scythe.
  • I print a lot of our games these days in parallel to localized versions of them. Our international partners have deadlines to pay the first 50% of their share of the costs. If they don’t meet those deadlines, their games don’t get printed. However, we usually start to make the plastic, metal, and wood components of our games well before those deadlines (they take longer to make). So my backup plan for when a partner doesn’t pay is to simply print more English copies of the game.

One of the ways I struggle with backup plans is when I assume something to be true (and thus I don’t even think to create a backup plan for it). For example, for a long time I assumed that distributors would always pay me after they had received their games (not always true) and that fulfillment centers would eventually ship our Kickstarter rewards (this has been true for us, but there are some creators who have struggled with this).

Here are some things I’ve assumed to be true for quite a while, and I don’t have a solid backup plan in place for them:

  • I’ve assumed that I’ll be able to continue to work with my manufacturer, Panda. I love working with Panda so much that I’ve never tested out another manufacturer in China.
  • I’ve assumed that products imported into the US from China would not carry a significant tax or tariff. It would significantly change my business model if the US government implemented anything resembling a high VAT (value-added tax).
  • I’ve assumed I would be able to access the funds I have in PayPal and in the bank at any time. As you may have seen with Portal Games and Leder Games (guest post from Patrick coming soon), that isn’t always true. I don’t have a good backup in place of this.


On Saturday, I hosted a Top Chef-inspired cookoff and game day. We played some games, then a friend and I faced off with a bevy of surprise secrete ingredients provided by friends to try to cook the best meal. Have you tried cooking with boba, capers, chives, bitter melon, plantains, and makok all at once? I have!

Part of my meal involved fried plantains. I thought about throwing them all in the frying pan, but I was worried that they wouldn’t fry well without any breading. I did what Brooke would do–I fried half of them first to see how they turned out.

My suspicious were confirmed. So I very lightly breaded the remaining plantains with flour and spices, and they were a nice crunchy complement to my Cuban/Cajun-inspired dish. Backup plan for the win! (Note: I lost the competition.)


What types of backup plans do you have in place for your crowdfunding campaign or your business?

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10 Comments on “The Surprise Business Lesson I Learned from Top Chef

  1. Just out of interest and since this article now make you look like you have some sort of oracle of future knowledge, have you significantly changed your business model now that the US does place significant tariffs on products from China?

  2. Yeah, I think having backup plans is critical for creators and publishers in this business. At Overworld Games, we always get a bunch of quotes from potential manufacturers, illustrators, graphic designers, freight shippers, fulfillment companies, video producers, 3D modelers, and really anyone else who is providing us with a service. When we haven’t had multiple options in the past, we have sometimes found ourselves feeling trapped, being forced to use a company that isn’t giving us the level of service we expect.

    One example in the last week: We wanted to try out a logistics company to handle our various freight shipping needs rather than relying on whichever one our manufacturer wants to use. We reached out to ~8 potential options. In the end, we weren’t sure which to use between 2 of them so for Leaders of Euphoria, we asked one company to do the freight shipping to 3/5 of our fulfillment centers and another company to do the freight shipping to the other 2/5 fulfillment centers. We used this as a test. One has been extremely organized and had fantastic customer service (OTX) and the other has been disorganized and very slow to respond. We actually realized this in plenty of time to give OTX all of our freight shipping business for Leaders of Euphoria and now we can use them with confidence moving forward. Woo hoo!

  3. When you mention not having a backup for accessing funds in Paypal/the bank, are you referring to the concern of access in general, or are you specifically concerned that the Paypal debacle Portal and Leder had/have will severely impact your access to capital across the board?

    i.e. do you think that the crowdfunding et al small business has a looming real concern with money access via the Paypal/pre-order situation, or were you just commenting on how scary it can be for the winds to change and all of the sudden you don’t have the money you thought you had

    Just wasn’t sure if I had missed something and Portal/Leder’s troubles extend beyond the specific domain and technicalities of pre-orders, and now my (and others!) future KS plans have yet another problem to contend with.

  4. I find backup plans to be an interesting concept, they make sense from a business perspective but they need to be approached in such a way that they don’t create doubt.

    For instance, soon I will launch a KS campaign and there is a chance that it will fail, so I have a plan in place for that scenario. However, I’m also cautious as I don’t want to lose potential backers through fear of the creator (me) not believing in his own chance of success. I guess this is partly avoided by keeping backup plans secret!

    I think the best backup plans should benefit both scenarios, in my case I have booked a large exhibit at a big convention 1 month after my campaign ends. I have planned two types of exhibits, the first being a “yay we did it, thank you, come chat with us and see the game” approach and the other being a “it didn’t work, we’ve listened to your feedback and want to show you what we’re doing to fix it and will relaunch soon”.

    I should add, I’m 100% confident in my game, but it’s always good to have a backup in case the fish gets stuck.

  5. The list of companies struggling with Paypal’s “we treat kickstarters as preorders and await delivery” rules also include Petersen Games (Cthulhu Wars etc.)

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