Chiefs and thinkers / Global
How are industries changing now? Our interviewees offer their predictions on what the future holds in their industry, from our need for convivial restaurant spaces to a profitable private media company in Vietnam and a start-up incubator with faith in bricks-and-mortar offices.
About the interviewee: King is a celebrated restaurateur and co-founder of hospitality group Corbin & King, the company behind grand cafés such as London’s The Wolseley and Fischer’s. An outspoken critic of the British government and its support for the hospitality industry during the pandemic, he talked to Monocle 24’s The Chiefs about the need for calm in all situations.
“I’m old enough that I’ve been through quite a few really serious downturns, where it’s worked out in the long run. As an industry, we’re better served now because there’s a body called UK Hospitality fighting on so many different fronts. Remember, hospitality employs close to three million people in the UK and contributes fantastic revenues but we have a home secretary who describes us all as unskilled workers and treats us with contempt. Top that up with the pandemic and problems with the furlough scheme – even though I am full of admiration for the government action – and a lot of people are disappearing.
I was delivering a talk just before the lockdown, addressing about 120 people, where I was being more positive than anybody else was about Brexit; even though I decried and hated it, I said ‘we’ll be fine’, because where the British are really interesting is this notion of not knowing where we stand. If we don’t have anything to fight, we start moaning. Some people just collapse in a puddle on the floor and say, ‘woe is me’. But most people work on the basis that we’ll make good of this. So I think the human capacity to take short-term pain, readjust and become positive, is there. I don’t think that everything is going to be so different. But what it will do is shake out a lot of restaurants – we were overserved – and people might even appreciate them that much more.
“My advice is to always remain in control, even if it means starting really small”
We’ve seen these polls where people are asked, ‘What did you miss most through lockdown?’ Number one tends to be family but normally number two is going to restaurants or the pub. We go to restaurants is for any number of reasons because the restaurants act as a catalyst; you can make of it whatever you want – dates, business meetings, reunions, seduction, divorce – all of these different things. But the other aspect, and what I’ve gleaned from people over the past few weeks, is that they miss what I like to call the conviviality of community. And I think that we all need that community.
For anybody coming into the restaurant business, my recommendation is to first treat your customers as though it’s your opening week, however busy you are. There is this danger for restaurateurs and restaurant staff where there’s a propensity to arrogance and complacency once they get busy. The second problem is that often restaurateurs don’t own their businesses; my advice is to always remain in control, even if it means starting really small. For me, the best restaurateurs are the ones who have control over their business – because otherwise they’re at the mercy of financially motivated people. I always say that too many restaurants are run from boardrooms and that’s an impossible way of doing it. The only way you can really run restaurants properly is from the floor, where you understand who the people are.”
About the interviewee: Tran is one of many Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) returning to the country that their parents left because of the Vietnam War and founding companies that draw on their experiences of East and West. In four years, Tran has built one of the only sustainable private media businesses in the country. Headquartered in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietcetera employs 40 people and its lifestyle-focused news site – in Vietnamese and English – is read by millions in a country where much of the media is state-controlled. Tran told Monocle 24’s The Entrepreneurs why media will grow – and how expat entrepreneurs can best contribute to their native countries.
“The first time I returned to Vietnam was when I was 15 years old, with my parents. I was afraid to leave the hotel. At the time, my identity as a Vietnamese-American was more American than Vietnamese. It was quite foreign; it was my first time in Asia.
I visited again when I was 23. As a newly minted college graduate, Vietnam was fascinating. When I went back to San Francisco, I couldn’t stop thinking about the potential. But I left Vietnam thinking, how can I possibly work here? That’s still the overriding perception that people have of a third-world country like Vietnam: how can you have a career here, let alone start a company?
I found a Wall Street Journal article about a venture-capital firm opening an office in Vietnam. I decided to drop a note to the partner, a Vietnamese-American. We met six hours later, since we were both in San Francisco, and he offered me a job.
And that’s how it happened: I moved out here and, about a year later, I decided to go full time on Vietcetera. My motivation for starting it was to better understand Vietnam. At the time Vietcetera was a blog and a mechanism to meet people; my interest in media grew from discovery and learning more about the industry. Media is a double-edged sword: it’s a lot of fun and the personal career development is phenomenal but, at the same time, the industry has its challenges. I don’t see it as a back-against-the-wall challenge; it’s been incredibly enjoyable and we’re lucky to have investors backing us.
“We have a lot of brands looking to navigate or enter the Vietnamese market”
Before we even raised capital from investors, we were profitable. Last year we booked just under $500,000 [€425,000]in revenue as a three-year-old media company. This year we’re on track to hit about $1m [€850,000] in revenue. The market is ripe for new opportunities. You can run the gamut to see what can be improved in Vietnam. And we are doing our small part.
Advertising is 10 to 15 per cent of our revenue. The bulk comes from sponsored content, from Vietnamese and international companies. They’re all trying to reach this audience of millennials aged 22 to 35 that we’ve created. There are a lot of brands that happen to be attracted to this audience because it’s the fastest-growing demographic in Vietnam – and the second largest in Southeast Asia, just behind Indonesia.
Our Vietnamese audience represents 98 per cent of readers. You might ask why we invest in English, at only 2 per cent. Our monthly active user count is on track to hit one million this month; 2 per cent is 20,000. Those 20,000 people are international businesspeople, powerful thought leaders and advocates for the Vietnamese brand. We also have a lot of brands looking to navigate or enter the Vietnamese market, using our site to understand it.
We’re all trying to drive a better Vietnam and be advocates for the country. We are one of few private media companies here and we happen to operate in a space where we need to be sensitive. But, given the kind of content we’re creating, we’re promoting Vietnam. I think there’s enough negativity in the world today; we’ve always been very deliberate about promoting positive content.
I’m more comfortable speaking in English speaking than Vietnamese. We are definitely outsiders but we want to contribute. At our company we’re about 40 full-time staff; I’m the only one who doesn’t speak Vietnamese natively. That’s a sign of how, as a community and as a society, the Vietnamese are holding their own. As foreigners we add to that but we’re definitely not the foundation.”
Director, Station F
About the interviewee: Varza is the Iranian-American director of Station F, a start-up incubator in a 1920s former railway depot in Paris. She told Monocle 24’s The Entrepreneurs why working from home doesn’t work for budding enterprises.
How have the past few months been for Station F?
This was the first time we ever had to close Station F in its history. We reopened in May, obviously adjusting to the kind of new normal that everybody’s talking about, seeing a lot of companies continuing to work in a hybrid model; seeing spaces used differently, people taking new measures in organising how they meet and work together, adapting to a lot of these changes. But what’s also been fascinating to see is: I feel like we started the crisis saying that we’re all going to go fully remote. I feel like now the discourse has changed to say, “We’re sick of remote, we can’t stand our screens, we want to see each other.” At Station F we’ve come back to the numbers that we had prior to confinement.
What has the energy been like with people returning?
I think that now people just kind of want to get back to work. We’re seeing a lot of teams reorganise, a lot of teams are doing more remotely than before but they’re not fully remote. We conducted a study – not just with Station F but covering different kinds of start-ups in the US, the UK, France, Germany and Israel. We had more than 1,000 companies from different stages respond to us and discovered that less than 10 per cent of companies actually plan to go fully remote, which means getting rid of your office, putting your team on remote-working solutions and things like that. I think there is also this mentality that life will probably go back to normal more quickly than we had imagined.
Some companies are considering whether an office is worth the cost. What did respondents say about people being together?
There is definitely still this awareness that we need to see each other physically; that some connections and serendipity happen when we’re together that you just cannot replicate online.
For a start-up looking for the next idea or fundraising or for a mentor, how important is it to have a space like Station F for in-person meetings?
Even before the pandemic we saw all kinds of models; some people are comfortable meeting candidates in a coffee shop or not having an office. Young start-ups competing for talent and customers – particularly if they’re working in the b2b space – need the credibility of an office. There are also people out there who don’t have the right working conditions where they live. So the office will still serve a purpose in the long term. I’d encourage companies to consider some form of space. I don’t think everything can be done in someone’s living room.
About the interviewee: Darrell became ceo at Logitech in 2013. The multinational technology firm’s HQ is nestled beside Lake Geneva in the city of Lausanne. Founded by Swiss and Italian Stanford alumni in 1981, today it is a maker of everything from webcams to headsets, keyboards to surround sound, gaming gear and video-conferencing systems. Worldwide lockdowns have played to the company’s strengths, reflected in an impressive revenue growth of 23 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Darrell talked to Monocle 24’s The Chiefs about what Logitech has in store for ensuring its growth beyond the current crisis.
We’ve seen the evolution of so many players in your sector. Describe where you were a year ago and where you expected to be.
A year ago today we were in our fifth year of near or double-digit growth. We were following four big trends: video; people working from anywhere; the rise of eSports-PC gaming and democratisation of content creation – the move to individuals creating all the content. Those four markets were 90 per cent of our business. We’re now in this spot where those trends are moving into what, without the pandemic, it probably would have looked like in 20 years.
When you look at those four focus areas, how much of that was external and how much was homespun?
It’s 100 per cent homegrown by virtue of the fact that we have a model that’s really fun and interesting. We’re extremely design-driven. We didn’t have a single designer when I joined. I hired the former head of design from Nokia, Alastair Curtis, who’s been my partner ever since. We have a process called “trees, plants and seeds.” The seeds are things that nobody knows about: very small teams trying to create new categories or enter categories as something different. That experimentation and entrepreneurship has been what’s driven us into these four areas. We want to be the big fish in small ponds, not the other way around.
What is the design process like?
We have a super-dynamic organisational structure. When Curtis started, we created a classic centralised design organisation; most of it either in Silicon Valley or Switzerland. After three or four years we felt that was getting stale. Alastair pushed the designers out into the businesses; now they’re all over the world. Now we’re changing it again: we’re pulling some of those people back in again to work on completely new and upstream things, while leaving others in dedicated teams.
Do you think there’s a power that you have as a brand with a base in Lausanne, as well as a base on the West Coast of the US?
We love being Swiss. We are a Swiss company at heart. Two of the three founders were Swiss. Our headquarters are in Lausanne and you can feel the “Swissness” running through us. We’ve had a big advantage where those same founders actually went to Stanford, earned a graduate degree in software engineering and started Logitech simultaneously in Palo Alto and Lausanne – or actually in Apples, Switzerland; you can’t make this up. That simultaneous start led to a company where we feel as though we are a combination of Swiss, American and Chinese. We have the high-quality orientation of Switzerland, the entrepreneurial spirit of the US and the speed of China.
Is there also a Swiss card to be played when it comes to premium?
It’s really remarkable how premium and competitive Switzerland can be as this small mountainous country. We definitely benefit from that mindset, whether it’s quality or premium innovation. From a branding standpoint, should we ensure that people understand we are a Swiss company? Probably. In China we have the Swiss flag on our packaging and we try to ensure that people understand we’re Swiss. We are also, proudly, partly Chinese, partly Taiwanese – but we’re Swiss by birth.
Founder, McNally Jackson Books
About the interviewee: As the founder of one of New York’s leading independent bookshop businesses, Sarah McNally is responsible for inspiring a new generation of booksellers and consumers alike. Launched in the city’s Nolita neighbourhood in 2004, McNally Jackson now gives its name to four bookshops and a series of stationery outlets across the city. She told Monocle 24’s The Chiefs us why bookshops have a bright future.
“When I first opened the bookshop in 2004, the ecosystem of bookstores, as we knew it then, was dying. I opened as a lot of the old-guard bookstores were closing and then a lot of the Barnes & Nobles in New York closed too.
However, in the past five years or so there has been a real growth of independent shops across New York. In that time my company became large enough that we could look at expanding into neighbourhoods in New York that didn’t have bookshops in a serious way. And equally, the reputation of my business had grown to a point where, after years of me having to grovel to landlords, begging them to lend to me, I had proven myself as a viable tenant. So it has been possible to make real estate deals that were much more workable.
Two of my shops are on percentage rent deals with their landlords because they are with larger developers, so we’re partners and we are in this together; we take risks together and we do well together.
I’ve always looked at my shops as something laid out so that anybody who walks in could take thousands of different journeys through it. I do very deep backlists – I cram, I fit every book I can possibly fit in without making a mess. Nobody gets into bookselling unless they love people. You have to love people and you have to love books, and the intersection of those two things is where your job happens. When you remove people, as happened during the pandemic, it’s a very, very different job than living at the intersection of a conversation about books and reading books.
I’ve always believed that every person contains multitudes, so in my shops, I do all the buying – with the exception of children’s books and some university press books. I never buy cynically. Everything I bring in – even if it’s something I wouldn’t buy or if it’s a book I wouldn’t necessarily read – it has to appeal to me on some level. I think you should go into retail with that sort of honesty and that openness, and never buy cynically. Every time that I’m trying to train somebody to work with me and they say, ‘Well, I don’t like it but people will,’ I say, ‘That’s simply not good enough.’ You cannot think that way. I try to curate my stores, which have tens of thousands of items, in the same way that you would curate a magazine. You wouldn’t put something in a magazine that you thought was stupid or dumb, or for people who you don’t respect. So everything in there is something I respect and is for people who I respect. I think that if retail is done that way, it always adds intelligence and depth to the city and the neighbourhood in which it lives.”
Images: Getty Images