Piper Podcast: Crispin Tweddell in conversation with Yasha Estraikh

Welcome to a special bonus episode of our Piper podcast series, How I Grew My Brand. It’s a bit different from our usual podcast. We recorded an in-house conversation between our Head of Brand, Yasha Estraikh, and Piper’s co-founder and founder of numerous brands, Crispin Tweddell. They discuss how the lessons he learnt in being a founder and investor remain core principles in how we think about customers, growth, and what is often the hardest part in a founder’s journey, succession.

Crispin co-founded the legendary bar chain Pitcher & Piano, with Piper’s Libby Gibson in 1986. We call Pitcher & Piano legendary not only because it was the brand that led to the experiential hospitality industry as we see it today but because Crispin always aspired for it to be a legend – ‘I remember very clearly when Pitcher & Piano was at the point of appointing its own MD… I said to him, we need to make this bar a legend.’ Crispin even wrote a letter outlining what the legend of Pitcher & Piano should be, which we still have in our office.

For us, as Yasha puts it, a legend is something people talk about and spread to others without having to rely on paid marketing. A legend has a life of its own; it has a story that is easy to recall and to retell. It gets passed on over a long period; legends inherently take a long time to be created. Everybody wants to create something that could exist in 20, 30, or 40 years, but not many brands survive that long. Pitcher & Piano still has 19 sites 38 years after it opened, and those passing words have lived on as Piper’s purpose, ‘Building brand legends’.

You will often hear us speak about the growth inflection points (7, 17, 70) that every brand goes through. Although this was originally based on the number of sites, it also has a similar resonance for revenue and even team size. It was based on an observation from Crispin when working with dozens of brands and noticing moments when businesses needed to change, ‘it just became apparent that there were very different kinds of behaviour in organisations as they grew.’

At Piper, we have taken this experience and become experts in guiding businesses through these inflection points while growing brands at the right pace that suits their business model. Crispin points out that many founders think things just get bigger, but businesses are far more complex, ‘you need to accommodate and recognise those changes, and prepare for them, and not just assume that it’s just more and more. You can’t just put your foot harder on the accelerator pedal… You need to change gear.’

If you have met us or listened to our podcasts, you will know that our other guiding principle when looking at a brand is that it’s better and different. This concept is as simple as it sounds, and Crispin is proud and blunt about its importance, ‘what is the point of this brand. If it isn’t better and different, then why would anyone bother?… Why would a customer come anywhere near it if it isn’t a different idea or better than what already exists… It’s just blindingly obvious.’

For Crispin, listening to customers has always been vital as well as something he intrinsically enjoys, ‘observing what people are doing, why are they behaving like that, what’s going on in their heads, it’s fascinating. The extraordinary thing in so many businesses is they don’t seem to be intrigued [by their customers] at all.’ He pinpoints both the time he knew Pitcher & Piano would be a success and the time another business would fail to these observations, ‘you can see that things are going on there, you can see in customers eyes that they are intrigued… but when things are dead from a customers point of view, you know horribly quickly.’ This is something we still apply as part of our due diligence. We always insist on talking to customers face to face in focus groups or, even better, within venues where you can see their natural interactions.

As a founder of multiple brands, Crispin is experienced in the need for succession, an area that most founders find challenging. When Yasha asked if he ever found it challenging to let go of a business, ‘The funny thing, no… for some reason it’s just seemed completely obvious.’ For him, it always comes back to those inflexion points. He knew that he wasn’t best suited to lead the business through the next stage of growth, and many of the founders we’ve spoken to in our podcasts share his sentiment, ‘some founders, a few, can definitely adapt as they go, but I think our assumption should always be that a business is going to need to go through those gear changes… if it turns out they can make those changes then fine, but some of them hang on for dear life.’

We are proud that how we do things at Piper combines Crispin’s early insights with decades of investing in and growing 50 brands. We hope this episode will give you an insight into how we think about brand building at Piper. We’re thinking about doing more of these bonus behind the scenes episodes to explore other themes around brand, customer, digital, people and culture, sustainability and business model. Is there a conversation you’d like to hear? Let us know.