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Stuart Cook: Top Young CEO, Active Investor and Startup Advisor on What It Takes to Grow Fast and Keep Thriving.

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
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Stuart Cook
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Stuart Cook

Stuart is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and an Australian Young CEO of The Year. He became CEO of Mexican restaurant chain Zambrero aged just 23 and oversaw its meteoric growth from $1m to over $75m of sales in only 6 years. He now invests in and advises startups and small businesses on building the teams, structures and culture they need to grow fast and have big, positive impact.

Find him at TWIYO Capital and LinkedIn[/col]


In 2015 you left Zambrero having grown it from two restaurants into a global franchise with over 150 locations. How did you get there and what did that take?

I was lucky to get an amazing opportunity after meeting the founder of Zambrero while travelling and doing aid work in India. I was 23 at the time, working in sales (in consulting) and not enjoying it, so when the founder offered to make me “CEO” of his two restaurants (a clever title to give someone not aren’t earning very much) plus equity I jumped at the opportunity.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I committed to growing and learning and surrounding myself with people smarter and more experienced than me. It was an amazing journey with MANY highs and lows, all of which I am very grateful for.


What major obstacles or failures did you face on your journey? How did you overcome them? Or how did they set you up for later success?

Our first major challenge was cash flow. We decided to grow our business debt free so we didn’t take on debt or raise any money until we passed 50 locations. As a high growth company, we were always sailing close to the wind with our cash reserves and got into a couple of tricky situations. I found, though, that openness and transparency about those struggles meant that people were willing to extend credit or payment plans since we weren’t hiding from our commitments.

Our second major challenge was people – people are the highs and the lows of any company. I once had to let go half my executive team for trying to stage a power grab – that taught me the risk of over-valuing external experience and under-valuing my own intuition. I also learned the importance of “hiring-slow, and firing-fast” as well as how critical it is to look for strong value-alignment in new hires. I didn’t get that at first, but once we’d written down our values and embedded them in the organisation it made hiring and firing decisions much easier.


Who are/were your heroes? Who helped you get where you are today?

I had MANY heroes during my time at Zambrero. When I first took the role as CEO, I’d never worked in a restaurant before and I hadn’t even seen a Zambrero location. I picked up a magazine with a feature on the fastest growing Australian franchise chains and took about 80 CEOs out for coffees, breakfasts and lunches to learn what had made them successful and what mistakes they had made.

I am also incredibly lucky to have amazing parents who supported me emotionally (and even sometimes financially) during the early, startup days. Then there’s my wife, Samantha. I fell in love with her the moment we met and she’s been my rock ever since, standing by me when I’ve needed support and pushing me when I’ve undervalued myself or not strived to reach my full potential.


How do you decide what things are important to you in life as well as how and when you will work on them?

This has been something I have struggled with as I am a doer. I always have to be busy and often haven’t taken the time to sit back and plan out everything and the priorities that I should, so I end up spinning wheels at times.

Although I have only been working with you, Arthur, for the past month or so, you have challenged me and now I plan out every week in advance and link the action items to my goals and values that I have set for myself.


How do you try and balance all the things you want to (and must) do without letting them all overwhelm you?

I have a very high stress-tolerance (after all, growing Zambrero meant being responsible for 2,000 young staff working with knives every day!)

That said, I’m also getting better at planning! I’ve started tracking my time and planning each week and each day in advance. This has helped me be less reactive and schedule more balance into my life.


What are your favourite ways to eliminate daily distractions and focus on doing what matters?

I am a MASSIVE fan of iOS 12 as it lets you “block” apps between certain times, greatly reducing my unproductive screen time.

I used to use pen and paper to look at what I’m spending my time on but now I’m using an app called “ATracker“. The simple process of writing down what you’ve done is a strong disincentive to spending 30 mins on the toilet watching YouTube or binging on Netflix (however awesome those things are!).

The app’s data and charts help me to spot ways to plan my day better by letting me see how much time I spend on things like “packing up my desk” or “travelling to meetings”. Basically, now that I can measure, I can manage!


What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self? What advice should they ignore?

Be really fit and healthy! Tenacity, willpower, grit and discipline (along with smarts) are the keys to success in business. I know my weakness has been discipline and I would be further along than I am today if I’d had more of it. If you learn to persevere at sport or in the gym and resist temptations and vices when you’re young then you’re positioning yourself for success whatever you chose to pursue.

Ignore people who give advice but don’t follow it themselves or those who give advice on a topic they know nothing about. DO listen to parenting and relationship advice from your parents (if you think they have a good relationship and were good parents). DON’T listen to business advice from your school teachers. Always check your advisor’s frames of reference!


What 3 books would you recommend to your 18-year-old self and why?


What do you love most about the work that you’re doing and life that you’re living right now?

Right now, I’m an investor in and advisor to several SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises) through my company TWIYO Capital and Advisory (The World Is Your Oyster!). I invest in and work with companies where we can add value and help them build the right structures and operational rhythm to help them grow in the coming years.

I love working across a number of industries, learning a lot and being able to take some of these learnings into other businesses. I’m also able to work remotely – so my wife and I aren’t living anywhere right now – just going from Airbnb to hotel all over the place!

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in yourself over the last 10 years?

  • Being more considerate and thoughtful towards others;
  • Learning to think bigger; and
  • Believing in myself and trusting my intuition

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it what would it say and why?

You are capable of anything. So surround yourself with people who raise you up and help you strive towards your dreams and goals and you will succeed.


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