The Boss: From The Wallflowers to growth at LemonShark Poke
“Maybe it’s from being in a band, but I know that one bad apple can spoil the whole experience.” —Tobi Miller, LemonShark Poke, then (above) and now (right)
Tell me about your upbringing.
My parents got divorced when I was three. My mother had four kids to raise on her own, and finished her master’s degree at Berkeley with us four kids. I didn’t really see this as a big family tragedy. I got sort of an independent spirit. One of my childhood friends, my closest friend, was Richard Gottlieb. We met in third grade, and he’s my partner today in this poke business.
Early leadership experiences?
I met Jakob Dylan, Bob Dylan’s son, in seventh grade. We went to the same elementary school. He and I started playing music together … started learning about his dad’s career. We studied Bob Dylan and the Beatles and Elvis Costello and The Clash. These were our favorite bands.
Throughout high school we started playing with people and forming a band. For whatever reason, I was the band leader. Jakob was very shy. We didn’t tell people who his dad was, at the beginning. We didn’t want people to play with the band because this was Bob Dylan’s son.
Was it intimidating, the Bob Dylan thing?
So in one sense Bob Dylan was my friend’s dad and that was it. I felt totally comfortable with the situation, but what I noticed, everybody else when Bob Dylan was around tenses up a lot. That was strange to me. I started to know how people changed when he was in the room.
Tobi Miller, LemonShark Poke
Bob was great, and he was very supportive. A funny story was we were looking for a name for a band before we came up with The Wallflowers, and Bob suggested King Neptune and the Slavedrivers … At the time it was wacky but today it would be a very hip name.
Did Bob Dylan ever give you suggestions?
No. He never heard any music until we recorded our first record entirely. He didn’t even know we got a record deal until we signed. I don’t think he necessarily wanted to encourage his kids to get into the music business. He actually offered to pay Virgin Records to get them out of the deal. But once he heard the record I think he thought we’d done the right thing.
Does leading a band translate into what you’re doing now, growing a franchise?
It definitely does. I was always the diplomat in the band, for whatever reason. I sort of pulled people together. So now, I think of LemonShark Poke almost as a band. We have a team, we have a mission. The other thing I think really crosses over, I always felt with The Wallflowers, we were in service to the song. So every song had its own personality, and as a band we wanted to be of service to the song, whatever the song wanted.
What has changed about your leadership style?
I can bring that back to the music career. At one point I left the band to start producing and engineering. As a first-time producer I was a control freak. It took me a few years to build confidence to let go and not control everything so hard. It’s similar to now. Two years ago I was doing everything. Now I have people executing at a much higher level.
Beth Ewen, editor-in-chief, learns if it’s lonely at the top and other lessons from franchise leaders, and presents their edited answers here in each issue. To suggest a candid C-level subject, e-mail email@example.com.
How do you hire?
I have my whole team meet with them and we make the decision together. Maybe it’s from being in a band, but I know that one bad apple can spoil the whole experience. You’re traveling in a bus, and it’s really important the personalities gel nicely.
What’s one lesson you learned about leadership?
Small changes portend to small results.
Big changes portend to big results. Before poke, I had a different concept, a gourmet hot dog concept. Basically I couldn’t quite get the concept to work. I cataloged about 120 changes that I made, tweaks to the menu, the pricing, the toppings, and with every tweak, with every change, I would see marginal if any results. It wasn’t until I changed the whole concept that I saw a different result. So overnight I changed my concept to poke, and within days I saw triple, quadruple the sales. That was the lesson to me.