skitched-20080131-120116.jpgI'm spending a lot of time with a friend this week, who runs a start-up in a developing (2nd world) country in the lifestyle-food sector. I won't mention his name, his company or focus, or his country, nor anything confidential, because I don't want the information to be used against him. Instead, I'll talk about some general principles, that I've identified.

The irrelevance of business-literature
We both studied at Rotterdam school of management (sometimes known as Erasmus), and spent some time there last night. Funnily, I came across an article in a university-published journal identifying 6 traits of leadership to ask for in the "new" workforce. Keywords included: ethics, diversity, global outlook, tech savvy, adaptive capacity, and the X-factor (charisma?). I asked him, as a joke, which he thought applied to him. Global and adaptive, he responded. The rest meant virtually nothing to him. As a start-up, I guess, you have to do what you have to do, to stay alive.

The advantages of 2nd world start-ups
I distinguish between 1st world (e.g. the Netherlands), 2nd world (e.g. Brazil), and 3rd world (e.g. a large part of Africa), when I look at countries. 1st world countries are mature in their development, 2n world countries are not yet mature, but their economies are growing pretty fast, and 3rd world… well, I'm pretty depressed about that, though sometimes there's surprising pockets of entrepreneurship and innovation.

The advantage of a fast growing economy is that people are still figuring stuff out, meaning there are a lot of inefficiencies and gaps in the market. Another advantage, in his country's case, is the interests of governments in boosting those economies. If your innovative, the grants you receive may be both easier to get and larger in size than anything available in 1st world countries.

For start-ups, another advantage is that you can look at what works in a 1st world country and use that for your own business. This principle is not exclusive to start-ups, it's also relevant to the innovation race between Europe and the US, for instance.

The costs of educating a market
My friend operates a lifestyle-food start-up, as I said. One gap in 2nd world markets is usually that that segment is underdeveloped. But, if the economy is booming, wealth is increasing, and that certainly has a positive effect on the luxury-market.

However, when you introduce a new product to a market, you'll have to build the market up first. There are various approaches to marketing, I'll just go into the one that my friend used.

Essentially, you want to get your products into a supermarket, and you want people to buy the food. Sometimes one, sometimes both will take some convincing. In the beginning. he spent a lot of time in supermarkets, getting people to taste his food. After that went well, he could use that success to convince other supermarkets to become customers also.

Two advantages of supermarkets: they usually have pre-written contracts for suppliers so you don't have to draft them yourself. And they sometimes operate in chains, which makes it easier to get larger customers.

There's two further things to do with food, to make customer-adoption a little easier. One is to sell it in an easily digestible fashion, e.g. a snack. Two is to not do so, and instead provide customers with instructions to prepare the food. You could do this on the packaging, a website, and even more drastically (can't mention what). My friend is pretty active in this area.

Another problem with 2nd world countries is that, while your food may be part of a lifestyle in the 1st world, it's close to impossible to lead that lifestyle over there, because all the components are not there yet. So, in fact, you don't use that lifestyle as a marketing-term. Instead, focus on health-advantages, as that is often the underlying driver for such demand.

Still, even after more than a year, my friend spends about half of his monthly expenditure on marketing—which goes through a marketing-agency that designs the brand, the colours, etc.

Global outlook?
As a start-up, you have to work within certain boundaries: limited money, staff, production-facilities, time, etc.

The clients for a food-company may very well be supermarkets, which, as I mentioned, have the ability to buy a lot. My friend is expanding into other countries, but he's carefully picking the ones that don't exceed his capabilities.

He prefers a fragmented market, where he can concentrate on a one or two chains at a time, not a market where there's national chains that could bleed him dry.

Related to this, fragmented markets are usually underdeveloped also, so in fact he is exporting to countries similar to his own. That, at least, is as theoretically expected.

Theory, schmeory.
While there are certainly concepts that can be found in a number of different fields, ranging from entrepreneurship & strategy, innovation, supply-chain management, and marketing, it remains a matter of being practical, and specific to the business.

Entrepreneurship is a 60-80 hour / week job, usually. You don't have time to check out business-journals, etc. to do your job.

P.S. his business-plan was 2 pages long.

And those… are the facts of life. More, if I can think of it. The picture is completely unrelated to his product.

skitched-20080130-112709.jpgEvery now and again, you come across something that changes the colour of your perception, that allows you to see the world in different ways. One such moment happened after reading a chapter in the IKEA-book, I wrote about before (1 & 2), on how the customer is deeply involved in the logistical process and the effects and cause of it.

As you may, or may not know, when you shop at IKEA, you generally go into the store, choose the furniture you want, pick up the already-boxed version of that item, put it in a cart, pay, drive home, and assemble it with some tools that are in the box. All-together, the customer at IKEA does 80% of the work related to sales.

I had read, in my bachelor, I think, that the reason that IKEA introduced this system was because of when it first opened its store, there was such a mass of people that their staff couldn't handle it, and that they then just decided to let the mob do all that stuff. I thought that the reason that system remained was cost-saving; I mean, how cheap is that to let customers do all that work for themselves, right? Well, that's definitely a reason, but only part of the story.

The other part is the effect it had on customers. Because you always ask yourself, why would someone go through that, when they can just pay the store a little extra for the transport and the assembly? And that's where it gets interesting.

To start, IKEA, even though it offers low-cost goods, is well-positioned for the middle-class market. The stores are outside the city, and pretty much all their customers have cars, which they can use to transport the furniture back home. I'm not 100% sure if this was by design or a consequence of other factors. But at the very least, the conditions for making the customer part of the logistics process are in place. Still, you kind of wonder. Aren't these exactly the people that could afford a little extra service?

The explanation is culture. Western culture, you could argue, has seen a shift towards individualism. People are over-informed, over-serviced, over-indulged. Sales-clerks and waiters can't wait to throw themselves at you and ask you if you're happy, if you want another…, and another, and another. It's exhausting, both for the store and for the clients.

In comes this place, which tells you, very Scandinavian, here… go do it yourself. Like a party, where you can mix your own cocktails. Where you control what goes in and what comes out. And most of all, where you get the feeling that you are part of a productive ecosystem. It's the good kind of stress.

The book quotes some sociologists, Robert Jungk and Ivan Illich, according to whom, a society which receives too many services, where every screw has a handyman, is a broken society. Services, they say, destroy activities. For every small chore, you can call an expert and let them do work that you actually do yourself. On a larger scale, services destroy the entrepreneurial drive. Also Thomas Düllo, according to whom, we live in a world of indirectness, and because of this, it's very exciting to be asked to do something. A French student was also quoted, calling IKEA: "Lego for Adults."

And there are definitely signs that suggest that society wants to move into another direction: open source, Wikipedia, Make-magazine, do-it-yourself, self-help, etc. Probably even blogging. A collection of niches to be sure, but growing ones.

Ever since reading that chapter, I sit in restaurants, stores, etc. and wonder how this principle can be worked into their or other businesses. For instance, is the take-away coffee part of it, or McDonalds' policy of throw-it-away-yourself, or Amazon. All of these "features" cause both a downward-shift in the bottom-line of "service" businesses, but they also remove the "service." And these businesses are unarguably booming too.

But I also wonder which services can be removed, and which shouldn't. More on that when I have the answer. Or perhaps you have it yourself? Let me know in the comments.

The picture is courtesy of Marco.org

skitched-20080129-095013.jpgOne of the downsides of not being at home for three months is that the mail tends to pile up. The culprit is The (weekly) Economist, which forced my landlord to dedicate a special cabinet just to accommodate them all. He was happy to see me.

My thesis is handed in, and while I'm anxiously waiting for the feedback / grade, I'm doing a variety of stuff to diffuse the thesis-haze that was in my head these last months. One of these is thinking about how I will organise the research that I collect for my work / blog. This is part of a dual trajectory I'm pursuing—one side is research, which I use to build up my knowledge about the field of food & retail, the other side the practical path, which I can now finally pursue freely.

The pile of 15 or so Economists is actually a good exercise to think about what really matters, and I'm going through them quickly, marking the articles that are interesting to read, and later cutting them out and adding them to special folder, after which I may categorise them by country and subject perhaps.

It's easy with The Economist, but there other publications that I'm much less eager to chop into pieces. My books are filled with pencil-marks, as are my Harvard Business Reviews, but there's no way that they'll ever feel the cold blade of my scissors. With those publications, I'm forced to keep all that extra paper and try to get my thoughts to paper as quickly as possible.

The other, sort of, complication are web-articles. I've been printing stuff to pdf and have a special S+FNR folder, reserved for anything from fashion-trends to human-resource management. I'm also going to print them out and add them to my folder for future analysis.

As you can see, I take my research seriously. A probable after-effect of writing a 180-page thesis, studying three academic fields—innovation, entrepreneurship, and finance—and interviewing roughly 300 businesses.

But I wonder how the real bloggers do it. If you're someone who takes blogging seriously, how do you organise your material, or do you organise it? If you do so on paper, I'm curious as to what kind of folders you use (incl. a link to a photo if possible).

Note: If you use a computer to store stuff digitally, I assume you use a personal database, like Devonthink or Jojimbo for the Mac. I'll tell you right now, I've used them all (to organise my thesis) and found it frustrating that they wouldn't do everything I wanted and tried to lock me in in the process (I've spent many hours migrating everything from app to app—it sucks!). They also don't help you much with paper-based materials, like mags, journals, and books. No, on the computer, I prefer a regular folder and to add text & pdf to it. Simple, portable, and cross-platform.

How being in the right place at….jpgIf there's one I thing I learned from my thesis it's that everything is part of a system. Most often, this system's purpose is to shift resources from and to various interconnected, yet diverse and complementary parties.

In regards to entrepreneurship, and pretty much everything else, I have a philosophy: everything happens for a reason, usually related to how you respond to opportunities. And to bring it back to that interconnected system, being in the right spot, where you can intercept flows of ideas, people, and resources, tremendously increases the chances of you finding the right business to be in.

Two examples
Two people that are fairly close to me are perfect examples of that phenomenon. They shall remain nameless, for obvious reasons. They are both pretty bright, but what contributed to their lives most, is being where it mattered.

One of my friends did a very smart thing. We studied together and when he moved back to his Eastern-European country, he noticed that a lot of traffic was coming in from the European Union, in terms of regional funds aimed at bringing the country up to par for future integration.

So he started a consultancy with some friends, to advise companies on how to apply for those funds. Initially, he thought it might just be a hobby. But what actually happened was that a lot of traffic was coming in terms of companies—start-ups, looking for funding. And it allowed him to find a business to buy into, which was well-postioned to fill a current need, and had the capabilities, but not the business expertise to succeed.

A second friend of mine was also someone who I knew would always start his own business. But he did the smart thing when he graduated (actually he did several smart things before too). He got a job at a corporation counselling start-ups on how to deploy that corporation's technology. So, just like my other friend, he got a lot of traffic in terms of ideas and people, and all he had to wait for is the right idea that would fulfil a niche in the market. And bingo. I'm not sure if he planned it that way, but he's now the founder of a start-up, filling up a need.

Underlying principles
Right places matter, but so does mentality and a number of other factors. It's not enough to just be there. The reason you are there is because you are of value to whatever network you are part of. Following are I think some factors to consider:

  • Be open to opportunities

  • Make strategic choices about your initial placement

  • Be of value to the network you are a part of - that means being an authority, which means you have to have some schooling

  • Make strategic choices about the start-ups that you encounter - are they filling a gap in the market, can you fill a gap in their organisation?

  • Go back to your initial network - analyse whether all the elements necessary for success are there—smart people, funding, exit-options, technology—and can be carried over.

  • If yes: launch and succeed.
Why this topic?
I always knew I wanted to start a business. Plenty of people at plenty of times, have counselled me to just jump in and do it. I didn't, because I felt the alignment wasn't there—between me, a business, and a need.

The way I'm visualising my path into this industry is among similar lines. Become a valuable resource myself. Find & build a network, where I can contribute value too. And then decide, based on timing, technology/idea, people, market-niche, and other elements needed for it to be a success.

Note to the reader: I'm still processing a lot of material I want to write about. Most of it is food and/or retail related, I promise. Expect at least two posts related to IKEA this week, on economics, design, branding, and customer-retention schemes.

Why are Fitness-studios so mean?

skitched-20080127-135446.jpgI have a general philosophy on restrictive business-model: that particular business (or industry) is in pain. Much like when you drive an animal into a corner, it will quickly start bearing its teeth and drawing the line.

I spent today searching for a gym close to me (healthy body = healthy mind), and most of what I met were restrictions and crazy prices, mostly summarised by:

limited opening times (don't people train on weekends?); a fat one-time-only entry-fee; multi-month/year lock-ins; and prices charged per 4 weeks instead of per month.
So is the fitness-industry in trouble or is there another reason? I have some theories.
  1. Low price-elasticity due to the health-boom

  2. Too much competition - but it's not like barbers, which are on every corner, are trying to lock me into a 1-year contract.

  3. Too little competition - more likely (see point 4)

  4. Expensive cost-structure - likely, I imagine it's much higher than for other retail/entertainment-venues.

  5. Low education entry-barrier, translating into uncreative business models

  6. Extensive government-restrictions - seriously, what's with the stupid opening-times? High insurance-requirements also likely.

Anything I missed ???

What I want, and sort of found, is the classic model: sweaty seats, instructors who growl at you when asked a stupid question, lots and lots of free weights, and if possible some over-muscular body-building chicks to compare muscle-size with. I'd also like the ability to pay per month, as well as a gym that opens before 8 a.m. (but that apparently is asking for too much).

P.S. Finally found something in that sort of fits the bill (see pic). Classic Gym Rotterdam. I'll be joining tomorrow.

  • For Technology, it's arguably Waste-disposal (I'll be writing about this soon on TechITEasy)

  • For Media, it's finding a Business-model to compete with free.

  • For Food, I would say it's O B E S I T Y.
Check out the TED-lecture below, for a 3-minute take by Dean Ornish.



And yes, I'm back! My 180-page thesis (or 135 at font-size 9) is being checked, and I'm in Rotterdam picking up the pieces of my life and making a delicious milkshake… whoops, I meant a yoghurt-smoothy… gotta watch that diet !!!

reality vs veality 2.jpgWhy am I preoccupied with art? Realistically speaking, apart from collecting links and inspiring quotes, all I have time for these days is doing some drawing. I like to hold discussions with artists, both about their art and the state of their industry. And I like to think that thinking in artistic ways helps me in other areas also, e.g. how to be more creative, how to see patterns, perhaps how to set up a business that people enjoy spending time at.

Of course, it's a lot of fun too…

Following is a list of things, I've learned/thought about art, starting specifically with drawing, and then about more general stuff about art—economics, DRM, innovation, etc.

  • Details are great, but the big picture is better - try drawing a christmas-tree and find out

  • Ways to decrease focus on detail - get some children's tools: wax colours, paint, big markers, etc.

  • Every object's colour is made up of a number of sub-colours, which then result in that glorious mish-mash, called a [insert your favourite classical artist here] painting. E.g. a leaf is green, but really there's yellow and blue in there, maybe a taint of orange and purple.

  • White and black are not colours because they ignore the principle above.

  • Nature is a great way to learn drawing.

  • Shadows are hard.

  • Perspective is hard.

  • Capturing movement is super-hard.

  • Abstract art is hard.

  • Everything can be mastered with practice.

  • Recognising shape is something you learn from practice.

  • Drawing upside-down—i.e. taking a picture and turning it upside down—is also a great way to trick the brain into drawing the shape instead of the mental picture your mind has already created of that shape.

  • Remembering shape and reproducing it from memory requires even more practice.

  • Keep a clean workspace so that you can start with a fresh mind the next day.

  • Reading 'The War of Art' will not make you a better artist. Practice, day-in-day-out will may make you a better artist. The book may help you become a more effective artist however.

Broad strokes:

  • Drawing is a right-brained activity, as such it is no surprise that most artists don't like or want to engage in the left-brained activity of making money from it. Guilty as charged.

  • Art is surprisingly similar to innovation - both are quite incompatible with economic principles, aka. making a quick buck.

  • The democratisation of art through the internet and subsidies has levelled the playing-field. Everyone can be (read: call themselves) an artist now. As such, discovering truly unique art becomes hard.

  • As soon as something can become digital, it loses tremendous value. Outlook for the market-place for digital products: bleak.

  • As painful as it sounds to all thieves out there, DRM is a necessary measure in making money from art—at least if you're a producer. That, or become a communist and get paid by the government. Recent discussion on DRM on Tech IT Easy.

  • Collaboration is another great way to make money from art.

  • Just like in innovation, using both methods and creating art/end-products that are hard to replicate, is an important component of success.

The picture is, incidentally, total crap, and shows how much I still need to learn. Nature is beautiful and oh so hard to replicate on paper.

Thesis update + 5 links

jumping into 2008.jpgDear all,
My fingers are really itching to get back into blogging and pursuing my passions. I've also lately been thinking that my interest in the communicative arts is perhaps a sign to go into marketing. I wonder how "blogger for 2+ years" looks on a resumé?

Today, I started with writing my conclusions for my thesis, which involves me going through it, and picking up the pieces that I like. That should also lead to a better introduction and executive summary. My next deadline is for this Sunday (or before), after which some more detail-work will need to happen (cutting/editing, checking/formatting references, prettying up some graphics etc.).

Btw. now that I'm actually reading what I wrote, I'm liking what I'm seeing. It'll be hard to cut much.

5 Links


I need to take a break for 30 min., so I'll take a look at if I bookmarked something interesting for y'all. I wish I could write something more in-depth, but it would just be too distracting at the moment.
  • St. Petersburg Times (US) has a very interesting write-up about a new "health food restaurant and Hip-Hop-themed video-gaming business," called HipHopSodaShop, that is opening in their 'hood. This would normally be nothing special, except I'm pretty interested in symbiotic businesses, and particularly anything reflecting popular culture. The article includes a number of details related to the legal aspects, the financing, etc. Worth a read. More details can also be found via BuzzFeed.

  • Ha! MetaFilter does a write-up about a new bookstore opening in one of my hometowns, Maastricht, where my parents live and where I attended school for 5 years. The bookstore, Selexyz, is actually located in a Dominican church and makes for some interesting pictures. I was hoping to visit it last weekend, but I only got to see some of Maastricht's other architectural gems (the city is booming with development) and two of its museums.

  • Yahoo-news publishes a list of 80 things to watch out for in 2008, from a marketeer's perspective. Big things include the Beijing Olympics and the US-elections of course. I also like "De-teching," "Eco-fatigue," "Green weddings," "Hip-hop's Retro Kids," "Intellectual luxury," … and actually 30 more I think.

  • PSFK points us to an Economist article about the decline of the shopping mall in the US. Honestly, if I had a choice, I would prefer for my shop to be located in one of the new open city projects in Maastricht or elsewhere, than in a dusty high-riser with artificial light and air. PSFK also writes that "consumerism is thriving in downtown shopping districts and outdoor shopping meccas," rather than in the infamous mall.

  • 2 for 1: Starbucks is in trouble. The Starbucks Gossip Blog points us to two stories. One on McDonalds converting its venues to Starbucks-clones (surprise, surprise), another on Howard Schultz taking back the reigns (a Dell manoeuvre?).


Happy reading!
The picture is of course my own… jumping into 2008!

interlude |ˈɪntəl(j)uːd|
noun
1 an intervening period of time : enjoying a lunchtime interlude.
• a pause between the acts of a play.
2 something performed during a theater intermission : an orchestral interlude.
• a piece of music played between other pieces or between the verses of a hymn.
• a temporary amusement or source of entertainment that contrasts with what goes before or after : the romantic interlude withered rapidly once he was back in town.

I'm going to quit the interludes. When I'm back, I'm back.

Happy 2K8 !
Vincent


 

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