Blog: Business & Entrepreneurship
Canlis restaurant

Lessons from Canlis for the Web Industry

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

The other day I heard a podcast interview that blew me away. In this episode, Chase Reeves interviews Mark Canlis, co-owner of Seattle’s destination restaurant, Canlis.

The restaurant has been operating at an extremely high level of quality and service for over 60 years. Do yourself a favor, go listen to the podcast right now. Once you’ve done that, I’d like to share my own takeaways.

Here’s some thoughts that were running through my head after listening to this interview.

People are the Purpose of Any Business

Business revolves around people. We can convince ourselves that it’s 100% about what we’re trying to sell, but that’s just what gets you to the marketplace — everyone else shows up with that, too. The table stakes for being a business aren’t a strategy that’s interesting or very deep.

I noticed that the people they choose to bring in as employees are usually undergoing a transformation themselves. Their prospective employees talk about who they want to become, and not just what they want to become. These individuals tend to be more finely tuned towards serving others.

“Tonight really needs to matter.”

Mark Canlis said this a few times, referring to their customers. He said, for most people, this was an experience they had been looking forward to for their entire lives. When you come to a restaurant of that caliber, there’s almost always a very special event driving you to do that. These events are things that can never be replicated again. This leaves people in a vulnerable state — they come seeking acceptance, knowing that this is a special occasion, this is a fancy restaurant, and they are not normally people who can go there on a whim.

They come seeking acceptance. The guests do not know how the staff will react to their presence. To their surprise, they are welcomed in a manner that shows them the staff has been waiting for them — that they are not just being accepted, but their arrival has been anticipated. This attitude seems subtle, but it is not. It makes all the difference in the world.

Hospitality Means Making People Feel Safe

Mark also talked about the origins of the word “hospitality”, and the meanings that it held in various cultures. In olden times, it meant that you took in strangers and protected them from harm — that you kept them safe. Likewise, the Canlis family seeks to make their restaurant a safe haven for people to be vulnerable and feel protected emotionally, as these dinners are meaningful.

The staff must be able to read people, and meet them where they are at. Guests are not expected to learn the culture of the restaurant before entering. That would be the opposite of making them feel safe.

All business is about one person connecting to another. Relationships run on trust the way our economy runs on dollars. This is why being trustworthy is so valuable in all aspects of human interaction.

How the Service at Canlis Relates to the Web Industry

There seem to be two general types of company culture in the web industry. Inside the web community, many perceive these differing cultures as being the same thing, because the technology is the same. From my view, these two cultures are as opposite as can be.

There is one sort of culture where the emphasis is on technology over people, success measured mostly in profits and seldom in lives changed. This is the culture many of us idolize, believing it to be omnipresent, but it is only a portion of our industry. A technology-first culture is very different from a people-first culture. Many of us feel most empowered connecting to people at a one-to-one level, knowing the people we are helping on a personal level.

Serving clients requires a deep compassion and empathy for people. Those who lack the ability to listen to, communicate with and understand people usually leave client services to work for larger, product-based companies. As impressive a skill as programming is, being able to listen to and read people is also difficult to learn. In every way I can think of, people skills are more important to a person’s long-term success and happiness.

Focusing on people first and foremost isn’t something that can be acclimated into a company culture overnight. This has to be something that seeps through every pore of a business, from the top down. It has to be genuine and done for the right reasons. Those reasons must be powerful, or we will falter when the fires of attrition test us.

Personal Resonance

I’ve had the good fortune to have lived a somewhat diverse life. From 1988 to 1991, I worked in various restaurants. Then from 1991 to 2008, I worked in retail bakeries. I even worked in a busy Starbucks from 1998 to 2000. The concepts that Mark Canlis talked about in the interview resonated with me, because I understood them from the very place he was speaking from. People go to a five-star restaurant for the same basic reasons they stand in line at a Starbucks, or order a cake to celebrate a special occasion. Customers do not come simply for the food and drink. They come for how the experience makes them feel.

Going out to dinner at Canlis is something that most of their guests look forward to for many years. Likewise, many clients that need a website will not have a chance to do it again for many years. Not only must we get the technology part right, but we must also make our clients feel safe and secure throughout the the entire experience.

How Do We Make Our Clients Feel Safe?

Our clients come to us with varying degrees of tech-savviness. Perhaps they had an unsatisfying experience with another web developer. More often than not, they are fearful of dropping huge sums of cash for something they are trusting us to build, without knowing what the end product will look like yet. That’s a lot of trust for a new client to place in a virtual stranger.

As web professionals, we can be oblivious to how our terminology sounds to clients. Jargon is a barrier that keeps people out. When we don’t comprehend what someone is saying to us, it makes us anxious and nervous. We have to meet clients where they are at, and not require them to learn everything about our field in order to work with us.

If we must explain a concept, we must do so in a way that each client understands. Like the staff at Canlis, we must prepare a place for clients before they arrive. We must learn about our clients and tailor our technical explanations in a way that is unimposing and not intimidating. Communication, not technology, is our greatest tool.

It is imperative to have open communication at the onset of the project, throughout the project, and even at the conclusion of the project. Understanding the goals, objectives, motivations, and fears of the client before a project ever gets underway is critical. Building trust is something that has to worked at anew with each client. Listen, and then listen some more. Read their body language. Hear what they are saying and what they are not saying. Clients are trusting us to protect them and guide them safely through the process building a website.

Another thing that really struck me is a line from the video above.

“This is a business about people. And if it’s a business about people, that means this is a business about relationships.” – Mark Canlis

Too often in the web industry, we believe that what we do is only about technology. The technology is just a tool. What we really build is trust and relationships, the same as any other business. We build trust with clients, and in turn, that helps them build trust with their customers. Our goal should be to minimize risk, lower anxiousness, and ensure success for our clients and their customers.

What Did You Think?

If you listened to the Mark Canlis interview on, I’d love to hear your take on it. Let me know what your takeaways were in the comments below.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

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