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Interview: Tim Zagat: From Law to Leisure Guide Empire

Timzagatthumb_2 The term "Zagat TM Guide" has become ingrained in our culture as a trustworthy source of consumer reviews of a full range of leisure, shopping and entertainment destinations. The folks behind the ubiquitous guides are Tim and Nina Zagat, two lawyers who launched their eponymous restaurant surveys as a hobby in 1979 and now preside over a growing electronic and print publishing empire.

We were grateful when Tim agreed to an interview in which he discussed his prior legal career, his "accidental" transition to entrepreneur, building a business with his wife ("It's been fantastic"), dining with clients, and advice for other lawyers who aspire to start a business ("focus on doing something you truly enjoy").

Read our interview with Tim Zagat below.

JD Bliss (JDB): What events, personal experiences, etc. motivated you to apply to law school and to initially pursue a career as a lawyer?

Zagat: I wanted to have a constructive life that would do maximum good for our country. Politics (and the law) gave me the greatest leverage to do that.

JDB: Prior to launching Zagat Survey, where did you practice law? Did you enjoy it?

Zagat: From 1980 until 1987, during the early years of publishing the restaurant Survey, I was Chief Litigation counsel for Gulf & Western Industries, Inc.  From 1976–1982, I was also a partner at Pomerantz Levy Haudek & Block where I was in charge of major litigation under the federal securities and antitrust laws.   Prior to that, I was a litigation associate in Hughes Hubbard & Reed’s Paris and New York offices. I liked practicing law a lot…most of the time. I found it fascinating to work on such great and diverse projects. New and different things everyday made it very enjoyable.

JDB: At the time when you started practicing law, did you ultimately envision yourself as an entrepreneur and were simply waiting for an opportunity to present itself? Or were you and your wife, Nina, lawyers who became entrepreneurs “accidentally”?

Zagat: Accidentally. This started out as a hobby for Nina and me, something we enjoyed doing for ourselves. Now we have the best of both worlds, enjoying our hobby and being successful doing it.

JDB: The company’s website indicates that Zagat Survey was born in 1979 while you and Nina were dining with friends and one of the dinner guests started complaining about the restaurant reviews in the newspaper. You suggested collecting the opinions of the guests around the table as an alternative, and later arranged for each guest to survey their friends. Did your “survey” idea thereafter experience explosive growth? Or did the business grow slowly at the outset?

Zagat: I wouldn’t say explosive. It did, however, get popular among our friends and their friends. The first survey was done on a piece of legal sized paper (front and back) and handed out to friends. Eventually we had to start mailing them out to people. The cost of stamps, making photocopies and the time involved made us rethink our desire to keep this up. We certainly didn’t want to stop doing what we loved, but we needed to pay for this rapidly more expensive hobby – and at least make it tax deductible. We started printing the books on our own, because no one thought it was a worthy endeavor to support, and then bringing them to bookstores to see if they’d buy them. Some said yes, others offered to as consignment and others flat out refused. Once we started getting orders for more – we knew we were on to something.

JDB: Did your legal training help in the early years of your business? How so? What skills did you lack that you had to learn from scratch as you grew the business?

Zagat: My legal training helped a lot. Practicing law helps you see things for what they are. Even the practical things of being in publishing were helped by our experience working in a firm. We knew, for example, that if you needed a 200-page document copied and bound overnight, you could get it done, regardless of what printers might say.

JDB: What was like it building a business together with your spouse? Did you split responsibilities and avoid encroaching on each other’s “territory?” Or did you collaborate closely in all aspects of the business?

Zagat: It’s been fantastic. It really is a family business. We did split responsibilities except where it was really important to discuss new territory. We often have very different points of view, but we continue to row in the same direction. To this day, we have our individual roles, but as co-founders of Zagat Survey, we are equally invested in it.

JDB: Now it seems easy to persuade people to complete Zagat surveys – how did you persuade so many people to complete and submit your surveys in the early years of the business? What was the incentive?

Zagat: The incentive was and still is a free book. If you complete the survey, we will send you a copy of the book. By being online – we can reach a much wider and in some respects, broader collection of participating surveyors.

JDB: How has the restaurant business changed since you launched Zagat Survey in 1979?

Zagat: It has been a revolution in every respect. The quality is better, the number of restaurants is greater, and the education/training of the chefs is better because of an increase in culinary schools. The people dining out today are able to demand better food because they are more educated and have a better sense of what is good. The quality of ingredients is better. It’s a whole new landscape.

JDB: How has the Internet changed your business? How do you compete against sites that offer free “reviews” from users and rely on advertising for revenue?

Zagat: The Internet has made things much easier for us. We are able to send out, receive and calculate ratings and reviews much more efficiently – allowing us to grow our business into new areas. Our Zagat.com website offers plenty of free information though our subscribers get added benefits. What makes Zagat Survey ratings and reviews stand apart from others is that it is a collaborative result. No other website offers condensed and accurate reviews of more than 250,000 individuals (Ed. note: there's a great case study on MarketingSherpa of how Zagat.com uses free content on its site to convert casual users into paid subscribers).

JDB: Any advice for lawyers on choosing a restaurant to dine at with a favored client?

Zagat: Go to a place where your main competitors are not likely to stop by your table, i.e., have enough privacy to talk business without having someone else close your deal before you do. If the client is looking for a good time with no business involved, see the Zagat Survey’s index “Visitors on an Expense Account” in the back of the book.

JDB: Given what we assume was, and probably still is, a busy schedule for you and Nina as managers of a rapidly growing business, what steps have you and Nina taken over the years to balance work with family and personal interests?

Zagat: To start with, our business involves principally things that are a great deal of fun: restaurants, travel, nightlife (eat, sleep, stay & play). That being the case, it is hard at times to tell when we are working and when we are simply having fun. Since our two sons enjoy the business and at times worked for the business, they share in this phenomenon.

JDB: What advice would you give to lawyers who aspire to become entrepreneurs?

Zagat: Keep your daytime job until you are making more money at your new business. You may end up working extra hard but its nice to have a regular paycheck until your business takes off. Also, a few years of experience as a lawyer will certainly prepare a would-be entrepreneur for the business problems that will inevitably arise.

JDB: What advice would you give to lawyers who are unhappy with their current career path and are considering alternatives – whether in law or outside of law?

Zagat: Anyone who is intelligent enough and has worked hard enough to become a lawyer can become a success in a myriad of fields. The thing is to focus on doing something you truly enjoy. If you love what you are doing, it won’t seem like work even when you are up all night; you are likely to work harder at it and your enjoyment will manifest itself in positive interactions with other people. And for all of the above reasons – you will likely be more successful. At the very least it is a wonderful feeling to wake up and look forward to your day.

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