Start-ups / Global
They found a gap
Have you ever come across a product and said to yourself, ‘I wish I’d thought of that’? We all have but successful businesses aren’t always the result of a groundbreaking idea or revolutionary technology. The key is knowing your market and finding a solution to a problem within it. We get some pointers from people who have done just that, from a cyclist offering the chance to ride like a pro to the creators of a debit card that miaows
Bookshop bringing Asian literature to Poland.
As a travel writer, Karolina Bednarz developed a deep interest in literature and society in Asia, particularly Japan. Returning home to Poland she discovered that she wasn’t alone and realised that there was a captive market for Asian titles translated into English or Polish. So in October last year she launched Tajfuny, a bookshop and publishing house that broadens the horizons of the literary scene in the Polish capital.
Recruit the obsessed.
Unless new recruits have a fervour for Asian literature that matches Bednarz’s, they might not be the best fit. “Tajfuny is about sharing a passion,” she says. “If you are not crazy about Asian literature and do not see yourself reading, editing and talking about it for years, this is not the job for you.”
Substance over size.
Tajfuny stocks just 200 titles for good reason: every book on display is loved by at least one member of staff. This means that the selection isn’t overwhelming for visitors. “Publishers send us books hoping we will stock them,” says Bednarz. “But if they are not good enough, we won’t.”
For Tajfuny’s publishing arm, print quality is paramount. “We strive to make our series pop,” she says. “We also value long-term business relationships, working with the same printers and editors so that our books do not differ in quality.”
Connect with a community.
Bednarz built on her following as a writer to draw customers but she wasn’t satisfied with just doing so online. “Before opening Tajfuny I covered east Asia as a journalist and had a blog, so many of our first customers knew me,” she says. “Now we organise book-club meetings and other events.”
Be consistent in design.
Tajfuny has a unique aesthetic: Bednarz enlisted the help of her favourite Japanese design studio Tegusu. “It’s important that people know who we are,” she says. “The design has made it easier to plan our books, promotional material and website.”
What success looks like.
Tajfuny has published six Japanese books in Polish this year and currently stocks titles from 12 east Asian countries. Its mission is to bring Asian literature to a western audience. “People who visit for the first time might be a bit lost but they return and ask for another book,” says Bednarz.
Growth: 15 per cent per month (in the past quarter)
Print runs: 3,000 copies(for the first 2 books)
Stock: 200 titles
Airline helping Aalborg to take flight.
With a population of 205,000, Aalborg is Denmark’s third-largest city but its airport suffers from a lack of connections – certainly when compared to Copenhagen, which is 45 minutes south by air or five hours by rail. Great Dane, founded by aviation-industry veteran and former pilot Thomas Hugo Møller, intends to rectify this and prove the power of regional carriers.
Think small, be nimble.
Great Dane chose to fly Brazilian-built Embraer 195s, which seat about 100 passengers, after tour operators flying from Aalborg explained their difficulties in filling larger aircraft. “The Embraer was an important part of the business model,” says Moller. “It was the only aircraft that had the range but with the smaller load capabilities.”
Listen to customers.
Flying Embraer 195s has allowed Great Dane to forestall a common complaint: that nobody likes a middle seat. Embraers have two seats on each side of the aisle. “Scandinavian people are quite tall,” says Møller. “They wanted a longer pitch than normal airlines have.” Great Dane offers 79cm rather than the more common 74cm.
If there’s a good national brand, embrace it.
It’s not just the name that ties Great Dane to its homeland: its aircraft fly the Danish flag on their tailfins. This is an attempt to embrace the country’s generally positive image. “I want that ‘Made In Denmark’ feeling on the airline,” says Møller. “Those Danish values of a high-quality product with high-quality service.”
Have a back-up.
“I’ve been in the airline industry my whole life so I know that it’s important to have a plan B,” says Møller. For a while, Great Dane toyed with the idea of offering full service on only one of its two aircraft so that they could keep one in reserve; any perception of unreliability could doom a fledgling airline. Instead they instituted measures such as having a mechanic on board and nailed down agreements with workshops at airports.
Buy good kit.
Great Dane looked at Embraers being sold by a Russian operator. “They were in Warsaw but they had been there for nine months, which is not good for the aircraft,” says Møller. It eventually bought its jets from Stobart Air in Ireland; the planes had previously seen service with klm and Flybe. “We prefer to own the aircraft ourselves rather than lease them: it gives us more control.”
What success looks like.
The airline business is unforgiving: the past few years in Europe alone have seen the grounding of Flybmi, Monarch, Wow, Air Berlin, Primera and NextJet, among others. Survival is a clear benchmark. “We want to be a stable product that is still here in 10 or 20 years,” says Møller. “We’d like to have good profits, of course. But the fun part is getting the puzzle right. It’s also fun for me to see the employees taking pride in the new airline. It’s nice to feel like it’s not just a job for them.”
Maiden flight: June 2019
Fleet: 2 Embraer 195s
Destinations: Nice, Dublin and Edinburgh, and seasonal charters to Mallorca, Rhodes, Crete, Varna, Naples and Bologna. More routes to come in 2020.
Financial firm with animal attraction.
Entrepreneurs don’t usually leave salaried jobs to pursue their own ambitions because they want to spend more time doing admin. But owners of start-ups are often surprised by the amount of time they need to spend on invoicing, chasing payments and filing tax returns when they’d rather be getting on with the task at hand. Financial-technology start-up Anna Money (Anna is an acronym for “absolutely no-nonsense admin”) is a bank card and app that automates these tasks so that business-owners can devote more time to the fun stuff. Daljit Singh and Eduard Panteleev (pictured, Singh on left), who co-founded the company with four others, are banking on the rising numbers of freelancers and small firms in Europe and the US.
Know what differentiates you.
From the start the four co-founders were clear that Anna had to be design-led, which would help them to stand out from the competition. “Design is not something you associate with financial products,” says Singh. Everything from the user experience to the branding was designed to be memorable. Build a team of outsiders – and insiders.
Build a team of outsiders - and insiders.
While Anna has a core team of financial professionals, Singh and his team sought employees from different backgrounds and disciplines to avoid falling into a group-think mentality. Anna’s staff includes people who previously worked in fashion, film and even stand-up comedy. “This breadth of experience has helped us create something that feels different to how a traditional banking service would operate and speak to its audience,” says Singh.
Think laterally and evolve.
Anna started as a personal assistant for small creative businesses. But the team realised that its business accounts and invoice-management services could be used by others too. From gig-economy workers to “mumpreneurs”, the team has begun to consider how to cater to wider demographics.
A little humour can’t hurt.
Banking is notoriously straight-laced. “It has to be when you’re dealing with people’s money,” says Panteleev. But that doesn’t mean that your products must be staid. When customers pay with an Anna card, the accompanying app miaows.
Look to other markets.
Anna was inspired by the increasing number of people striking out on their own, either as freelancers or launching new small businesses. Two of the co-founders, Panteleev and Boris Dyakonov, had founded similar banking businesses in Russia before recognising that it was a global trend – and one that was growing quickly in the UK.
What success looks like.
Since launching its debit card and app in 2018, Anna has grown to 10,000 accounts; it now has 70 employees based in London, Cardiff and Moscow. Its initial campaign – “the world’s first miaowing debit card”, which included an audition video of cats trying to be the official miaow – received two million views on social media, resulting in a 72 per cent increase in sign-up rates.
Funding: £15m, from two rounds of funding
Staff: 70 (up from 15 in 2018)
Accounts opened: 10,000 since launching in September 2018
Cycling tours with the perks of the elite.
In 2010 Portuguese professional cyclist João Correia was winding down from a gruelling season. So what was the antidote to a surfeit of lactic acid and too many jolts to the collarbones? Jumping back into the saddle, of course. This time though it was for a leisurely ride around Chianti, with stops for food and wine. After an impromptu invitation via a tweet, four others joined him. Correia had unearthed a market for affluent cyclists craving a high-end, high-performance experience. InGamba now runs tours in Europe and North America from its Sausalito HQ. A seven-day, €7,000 tour includes everything from bikes to Lycra.
Prove the concept.
Correia tackled logistical problems as he would when preparing for a race: by getting help from soigneurs. “I never wrote a business plan,” he says. He spent two years fine-tuning the formula to ensure that participants would have an experience similar to professionals, with top hospitality thrown in. “I wanted to share the incredible places I had visited as a professional. We ran three trips over two years before the business formally launched.”
Know who you are and what you do.
“We were the first to have the same infrastructure as a pro team for recreational cyclists: professional soigneurs and the same equipment as the pros, including $15,000 [€13,500] Pinarello bikes,” says Correia. Support cars stop to repair flat tyres; clients wear the same high-end kit to instil camaraderie; and every ride ends with a rub down from expert masseurs. Stages retrace major road races and pro riders sometimes join in. “Once we cycled a Giro d’Italia stage a few hours before it began.”
Hire right and make sure people buy into it.
“You can teach skills but you can’t teach character and work ethic,” says Correia. Given his links with cycling – he is also a sports agent representing 25 pro cyclists – he is able to hire a crew with experience drawn from races such as the Tour de France. Clients have their racing kit and bike washed daily, with expert mechanics on hand for repairs.
You need to be authentic.
“If you provide an authentic experience, it connects with people,” says Correia. For lodging and eating, he and his staff look for places with genuine warmth: hotels such as rural retreat São Lourenço do Barrocal in the Alentejo or a meal at Castello di Ama, a Tuscan winery with a private art collection. “We go where we have great relationships with owners – one osteria has my jersey on the wall,” he says. “We are greeted as old friends.”
Start giving back from the start.
Seeing the positive impact that his excursions have had on his clientele has encouraged Correia to help people outside his target market benefit from the joys of cycling. “We started working with World Bicycle Relief, a charity that places bikes in Africa to increase mobility for students and others,” he says. “Getting to school quicker, bringing home water by bike, helps everybody.” Ingamba donates a bike for every guest and organises fundraising rides.
What success looks like.
InGamba is seeing double-digit growth and operates 50 week-long trips a year. Correia is particularly proud of the fact that 55 per cent of participants are return clients. His firm’s tours take cycling enthusiasts to picturesque locations such as the Dolomites, Pyrenees, Douro Valley and California coast.
Clients per year: 500
Wine bar that’s popping the cork in the suburbs.
In Australian suburbs there isn’t much in the way of amenities: bars, restaurants and night spots are usually found downtown. But architect Simone Robeson spied thirsty – and under-served – customers in Bayswater, Perth. So she opened wine bar and bottle shop King Somm with her partner Matt Hayes, photographer brother Dion Robeson and sister in law Alana (pictured, sitting, with, from left Dion, Simone and Hayes).
Keep it local.
Bayswater is an improbable location for King Somm, with its obscure wine and sleek fit-out. But the team sees this as a safety net, not a risk. “I don’t think I would have been brave enough to try this in the city,” says Simone Robeson. “There’s a lot of competition.” And rent is cheaper: the team spends about 2 per cent of its revenue on rent, much less than the usual 10 per cent.
Diversify your business.
Unusually for the Australian hospitality industry, King Somm has been granted a licence to both sell and serve alcohol. This has allowed it to generate multiple income streams, including a bottle shop, dining venue, takeaway outlet and an online store that specialises in small-batch wine. “The goal was to offset the risk of owning a bricks-and-mortar business,” says Hayes.
Another point of difference was the decision to hire most staff on a full-time basis. “In hospitality most people tend to have casual workers to give flexibility,” says Hayes. “But that creates a high turnover. Staff want consistency: they have families, they want home loans. We might have too many staff when it’s quiet but we get loyalty and dedication from people. They know we’re sticking with them.”
Cap your fit-out costs.
Given Robeson’s background in architecture, King Somm could renovate its heritage-listed space in a cost-effective way. “I could spend nights and weekends on it,” says Simone. “But we wanted to keep the openness and feel of the original billiards hall.” But expenditure on fit-outs can be huge, says Hayes. “We’ve gone for something that’s a lot more rustic so there’s less financial pressure.”
Think about the small things.
Every tiny detail of the fit-out was carefully considered and tested out. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re in a gallery,” says Simone. “So we spent a lot of time on those aspects that people might not notice.” A friend even built the acoustic sound system using components such as 1970s valve amps, ensuring the music filling the venue is easy on the ear.
What success looks like.
Repeat customers are the backbone of King Somm’s success: about 40 per cent of revenue is generated from returning clientele. Events such as wine tastings, quizzes and music nights sell out quickly. King Somm is on track to repay its initial investment – which Simone says was “comfortably less than au$1m” – by mid-next year.
Founded: February 2019
Customers per day: About 150
Capsule-hotel firm opening customers’ eyes to sleep loss.
Founded by business-design duo Alex Kot and Jun Rivers (both pictured, Kot on left), Sleeep is a chain of capsule hotels in Hong Kong and Bangkok. Guests can reserve or walk in and use sleep pods for an hour or a night, making the business popular with both visiting tourists and hardworking locals.
Tackle a social problem.
Kot and Rivers entered a prototype of Sleeep in the Harvard Dean Challenge in 2014; the competition called for designs to alleviate problems tied to urban overpopulation. The duo say that people working in banking and the government sector are among Sleeep’s most frequent clients. “Some people are just looking for some ‘me time’,” says Kot. “They go back to their homes and sometimes it’s very crowded; they need to have their own space.”
Think outside the traditional business model.
When Kot and Rivers launched Sleeep they had eight capsules and no check-in system. The duo came up with a booking system whereby, upon arrival, guests scan a QR code that they receive after payment. “We couldn’t find a better existing solution out in the market so we invested our time and effort developing this ourselves,” says Kot.
Have a strong conviction.
“You can’t just fill a gap: you have to go through it and experience it for yourself,” says Rivers. Sleep deprivation has been an issue for both founders: Kot was diagnosed with sleep apnea as a teenager and Rivers experienced the lasting effects of staying awake for too long while at architecture school. “There’s an irony that architects are meant to create environments for people to improve their quality of life,” says Rivers. “But in that process we’re so negligent about our own health.”
Come up with another strand.
As well as providing cosy pods for visitors, Sleeep has a separate retail component for customers passing through. “We want to address the peripheral products that surround sleep,” says Rivers. “So we’re selling bamboo toothbrushes and comfortable T-shirts – this helps us to evolve as more than just a capsule-hotel business.” All of Sleeep’s merchandise is designed for the minimalist podhopper and is made from organic, sustainable materials.
Support your community.
While recent protests in Hong Kong have taken a toll on the city’s hospitality scene, Kot and Rivers see this as an opportunity to use their business for the greater good. “We’re trying to bring out a campaign called Recharge Hong Kong,” says Rivers. “There’s a lot of stress in society right now and we’d like to do a crowdfunding campaign.” Kot and Rivers hope that this will enable Sleeep to open its pods to anyone who needs them. “If we raise enough money we’ll open Sleeep up to people who are stressed, from work or for whatever reason,” says Rivers
What success looks like.
This has been an exciting year for Kot and Rivers; Sleeep recently opened a new branch of its capsule hotel in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay. The duo also launched a four-storey centre in Central, featuring a specialised sleep laboratory, co-working space, café and 16 sleep pods. This month its first overseas venture will open in Bangkok. “In Thailand there’s an even greater sleep-deprivation problem,” says Kot. “We’ll be transforming the space into a Thai spa for sleep.”
Branches: 5 (3 in Hong Kong)
Upcoming ventures: 1 pop-up in Baseland 1 branch in Bangkok
Cost of an hour’s nap: €17