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“Keep-goings” before “start-ups”

March 6, 2018

Last year I opened and closed a business (Better, the cosiest, most creative co-work space that Joburg ever had). We opened in February and closed at the end of November. Starting a business had always been on my bucket list and so I am really glad that I finally got around to it. I met many wonderful people, lost some money, had a lot of fun, and learned a whole lot about myself in the process. That particular aspiration is now firmly ticked. I doubt very much that I will do it again, but I do want to reflect on what I learned.

What struck me most (and this is not new to anyone who knows about start-ups) is how much sheer hard work goes into starting a business. There is a lot to do. Not only is one trying to think at the strategic level (Will this fly? Is there a market? What’s the best way to position my business?), you are also taking care of the operational details. That’s hard.

One day we ran out of milk (a bit of a disaster in a co-work space) and I realised that we needed a defined process so that someone would routinely take responsibility for checking the milk supplies and placing a regular order. I have worked in many different companies and the availability of milk, or toilet paper, is something you learn to take for granted. Somewhere in the machinery of each organisation is someone who does those things, and frees up everyone else to focus on more important things. And that is good. Designing business processes is something I’d done for years in large corporates, but when you realise that those processes have to include the inane details like buying milk, it gives one a new respect for the sheer number of things that have to happen to make a business function.

Starting our little co-work space took months. We conceived of the project in June 2016 and spent the next four months looking for premises. We signed a lease in November 2016 and after two months of renovating we opened in February 2017. During that time we also registered a company and opened a bank account. The first we accomplished in a day, the second took six weeks; despite the bank we chose proudly advertising that they were the “best business bank”. So much for the private sector being efficient!

We ran for 10 months (and it really did feel like running: strenuous). In that time we devised marketing plans, ran events, tried to keep customers happy, worked on improving the space, dreamed up new products, experimented, made some money, learned what didn’t work, made losses, tried new approaches, studied the market, tried different marketing approaches, did the admin, questioned our customers, ran more events, bought cool stuff for the space, reminded ourselves of our original vision, tried different marketing approaches, tweaked our product offering…. Eventually we ran out of energy, and money, and closed at the end of November 2017.

I’ve always been a fan of the idea of business start-ups. I’ve read stories of successful start-ups with admiration and a bit of envy. I’ve encouraged others to start businesses. I’ve read about entrepreneurship and generally thought it was a good idea for people seeking freedom to set up their own small enterprises where they can have control over what they do and be true to their own values. I love the programs to support start-ups and have been behind the idea that more start-ups are a good idea.

Now I am not so sure.

Given how hard it is to start a business, and how much time, effort and money goes into the process, I wonder if the focus should be less on starting new businesses and more on keeping existing businesses going and improving. Whenever a business closes, all the time, effort and money that has gone into getting it going, is lost. The bigger a business is, the greater the loss when it closes. Surely more should be done to preserve that value and build on it?

Given how hard it is to get something off the ground, I feel that start-ups should be approached with more caution, and only initiated when there is a really, really good case for them; when an existing company can’t meet that same need. Perhaps all new ventures should begin by being incubated within larger organisations, with support for the early years? Perhaps the natural way for new ventures to start is by separating from a larger organisation when it is large enough to survive independently. I picture the little plants that grow on stalks sent out from the larger hen-and-chicken plants in my garden.

At the same time, perhaps more attention should be paid to existing businesses that are running into difficulties. We need programs to keep businesses going, to diagnose problems and examine solutions, rather than letting all the hard work that has gone into them go to waste. I guess older businesses are less exciting, less appealing than new ones, in the same way that babies are cuter than adolescents. But the work that has already been invested into adolescent, or even mature businesses, should make us more eager to see them thrive. Perhaps we need to think about shaping existing businesses to meet new needs.

I guess we start new ventures because we want something different. We have a vision for something that is not out there. That’s what makes the start-up appealing. In our case we wanted a co-work space that was cosier, friendlier, less corporate, and more in line with our values than the ones that we had encountered. Perhaps there are spaces out there that we can change, that could become more like the space we want. I guess if there really is a demand, then that demand will shape what gets provided.

I find myself now having greater respect for anyone who runs a business, new or old. I’ll be less eager in the future to recommend start-ups and more inclined to recommend working towards improvements in existing organisations. Working together to improve and build on what is already there seems only sane.

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From → Living, Management

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