37. Local hero | Monocle

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It is the best of times and the worst of times to be the author of a book about entrepreneurship. For the past 12 months I have travelled the world speaking with emerging entrepreneurs to distil their lessons into a book, Cult Status. I handed the manuscript to my publisher in February; then, within a few cruel weeks, the world became unrecognisable.

I expected that the businesses I had studied might fall victim to the swiftest economic downturn in history. Every hour I had spent analysing their thoughts on how to grow a new type of business in a pre-pandemic world would be wasted.

The next-generation entrepreneurs I chose to profile all had one thing in common: they spent an inordinate amount of their focus building a community around their product or service. People such as Hira Batool Rizvi, who started a ride-sharing business, SheKab, in her hometown of Islamabad to help the 17 million Pakistani women who struggle getting to and from work – and discovered that the camaraderie extended well beyond the cars. Or Simon Sheikh who co-founded an ethical investment fund in Australia, Future Super, with an ambitious target to invest 20 per cent of the au$1.5bn (€900m) in assets they manage into renewable energy.

Once the frantic winds of change had died down a bit, I picked up the phone to speak to some of them. Instead of sad tales, I discovered that they were filled with a renewed sense of purpose; most of them had stepped up to meet the moment, buoyed by their communities who rallied around to absorb some of the shocks.

One clear trend emerging from the rubble is that the more cult status a business has, the better its ability to survive tough times. This doesn’t help if you were legally required to shut your doors but entrepreneurs who could expand into new areas have been able to draw on the goodwill they had amassed during better times.

Jess Elliott Dennison is a cookbook author who opened her first café, 27 Elliott’s, in a leafy suburb near Edinburgh University in 2018. A cosy neighbourhood spot with seasonal cooking, natural wines and fermented sodas, it quickly built a following. Like many businesses, coronavirus forced Jess to shut down and pivot. She reopened as a “village hall” essentials shop, selling bread, eggs, milk, wine and handmade goods. Now that she is over the initial shock, and after throwing out her business plan, she is leaning in to the change. “Work has never felt more rewarding, strangely,” says Jess. “It feels like raw business. Every day I try something different and test it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I learn from it.”

The café’s customers never stopped coming despite physical distancing. “I knew I had loyal regulars,” she says. “But I had no idea they would queue for up to an hour just to get a coffee and a loaf.” Jess attributes the warm embrace her business has received to the care she put in before the pandemic. “It sounds silly but I wondered whether anyone had noticed all the small details,” says Jess. “Like new flowers, posh hand soap, nice ceramics, treating customers as friends. People are voting for how they want the future to look through how they spend.”

Simon Griffiths is co-founder of recycled toilet-paper subscription business Who Gives A Crap, which donates 50 per cent of its profits to build toilets in the developing world. The company was one of the first coronavirus success stories, as panic-buying led to unexpected shortages and its product became a hot commodity. At the peak it saw an 1,100 per cent increase in daily sales in Australia.

Another trend that will outlive the coronavirus is the rapid shift to online everything. “Once upon a time it might have felt weird to have a toilet-paper subscription,” says Simon. “Now it feels like a very good idea.”

Almost every business I profiled for the book had invested time into cultivating genuine fans and were now leaning on them heavily. The outbreak might have dimmed a lot of things but it’s also highlighted how important your community is when you need it the most.

Tips for thriving in the new world

Doing good is good for business. The impact you have makes your customers proud and gives them a reason to share your company with their friends on social media.

Honesty is the best policy. Be open and honest about things that aren’t going well. Show your customers that you’re just a bunch of humans who are genuinely trying to make the world a better place.

Be in the business of delight. Make your customers smile when they’re least expecting it. Everyone appreciates a light-hearted tone, especially in the midst of a challenging time.

About the author: Duggan is a former music journalist who now runs Australian digital publisher Junkee Media. His first book, Cult Status, will be published in July.

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