Businesses require bold ideas to survive and thrive. Here we survey some of the smarter strategies and innovations that have helped entrepreneurs around the world to get ahead.
Attentive veterinary technicians cradle a “doodle”, a cross between a poodle and another dog breed. They’ve just induced it to vomit to extract any traces of xylitol, a chemical commonly found in chewing gum that’s harmless to humans but toxic for dogs. In some veterinary clinics an animal’s owner would sit anxiously in the lobby without knowing what was going on in the examination room. Not so at Modern Animal, where the doodle’s owner keeps a watchful eye on the proceedings through glass windows.
That’s just one of many thoughtful touches at this Californian start-up, which incorporates smart design and technology to reinvent the pet-care experience. It feels a world away from the usual noisy clinics filled with yapping dogs and screeching cats (not to mention the unpleasant odours that come with them). Here, natural light pours in from skylights, illuminating blond wood, a cool blue-and-white colour scheme and an assortment of succulents and indoor plants. Pet owners are soothed by a friendly host who greets them at the door and they often get to see a veterinarian who has known their animal since it was a puppy or kitten.
“The problems in the industry aren’t animal problems but human problems. The quality of the veterinary experience was never thoughtfully designed”
“The problems that the industry is facing are not animal problems but human problems,” says Modern Animal co-founder and ceo Steven Eidelman, who has raised $89m (€76m) in venture capital to turn this initial 325 sq m location in West Hollywood into a nationwide business. (A new outpost has since opened in Pasadena, with further expansion planned over the next year.) “From the front desk to the actual care, the quality of the veterinary experience was never thoughtfully designed,” he says. “The assumption was that the experience is for the animal, which led the industry to accept a low bar.”
The improvements made by Los Angeles-based firm Design, Bitches are visible throughout the clinic: quiet veterinarian’s offices, uncluttered workspaces, a private room for delicate consultations. In addition to regular examinations and vaccinations, Modern Animal can process lab tests in-house and offers an on-site pharmacy, radiology suite and operating theatre for some procedures, as well as dental care.
Eidelman entered the industry as co-founder of Whistle, a health-tracking company for pets. After Mars Petcare acquired it in 2016 and made Eidelman entrepreneur in residence, he shadowed practitioners at countless veterinary clinics. “I couldn’t believe what a veterinarian or technician had to endure behind the double doors,” he says.
Poor conditions, high debt burdens after graduating veterinary school and a commission-driven business model that generates overwhelming workloads all contribute to the profession’s alarmingly high suicide rate in the US, just as the workforce has become majority female.
“There is a lot of talk about mental health and wellbeing in the industry,” says Christie Long, Modern Animal’s head of veterinary medicine. “The functionality of our space lets doctors close the door and hear themselves think. Our industry has lost sight of how important the physical space is to the team.”
The beautiful and functional design is made possible in part by Modern Animal’s software innovations. All of the scheduling happens via an app, eliminating the need for a ringing phone at the front desk. Digitised medical records allow a seamless transition of cases between the clinic’s seven veterinarians, so a day off is truly a day off. Rather than fruitlessly trawling the internet for answers, pet owners can use the clinic’s round-the-clock telemedicine service. In turn, virtual care reduces the number of in-person visits, freeing up precious clinical space for urgent cases.
After Eidelman sold Whistle, he felt burned out and contemplated moving out of pet care. “When we started Whistle, I didn’t have the conviction that there was a real problem,” he says. But the thought of taking his pitbull-collie mix, Layla, to the vet, knowing the grim reality of conventional veterinary care for both its practitioners and pet owners, gave him all the insight he needed. “I finally had clarity around the problem,” he says. And out of that insight emerged Modern Animal, which is poised for wider success in an industry long in need of a shake-up.
Striking out into new territory might sound appealing the second time around but there is value in staying in a related field. The networks and knowledge gleaned from your first venture will prove to be invaluable.
A decade or so ago a friend of Matthew Rogers asked him if he could help move a dog. Now Rogers’ company Go Fetch moves about 80 animals a week. Most are dogs and cats but one recent passenger was a 130kg tortoise.
Go Fetch, based in Chertsey, England, employs 26 people. “We’re quite strict when interviewing drivers,” says Rogers. “Most have worked with animals before: police dog handlers, animal-welfare charity staff.” All of the company’s 16 vehicles are custom-equipped at a cost of about £10,000 (€11,700) each; the vans have onboard kennels, climate control, water storage, first-aid kits and harnesses. “We’ve been as far north as Tromsø, as far south as Tenerife, as far east as Moscow and to the west coast of Ireland,” says Rogers.
“We’re quite strict when interviewing drivers. Most have worked with animals before: police dog handlers, charity staff”
As well as pets, Go Fetch transports zoo animals and police and military dogs. Asked for a sample price, Rogers quotes £1,200 (€1,400) to drive an average-sized hound from Madrid to London. Some customers prefer to send their pets by road for the flexibility this offers, says Rogers, while others do so to avoid airlines restrictions or because they “don’t like the idea of their dog being in a plane’s cargo hold”.
Over the past year a small, informal Uruguayan currency called ñeri has evolved from a playful way to trade marmalade and old furniture into a fully fledged digital currency that has caught the attention of the Uruguayan Central Bank (bcu). It was launched by a young entrepreneur called Juan Grunwaldt with the decidedly humble objective of helping him to trade home-made food and unwanted homeware with his friends. Soon, however, Grunwaldt found that more than 1,000 people had signed on.
Cut to two months later and transactions using the new currency had exploded to 6,000 purchases, piqueing the interest of the bcu’s governor, Diego Labat, and his team.
Ñeri’s rapid rise is a welcome reminder that if what you’re doing is fun, it’s likely to be good for business too – and that not all ventures need to totally rewrite the rule book.
If you’re a business owner, you will have given plenty of thought to your brand image. You have a nice logo, a colour palette and perhaps even your own typeface. But have you ever considered what your brand sounds like?
“Sound activates larger and deeper sections of the brain than visuals,” says Tommi Partanen, an adviser at Ultra Nordic, an audio experience design agency based in Helsinki. “We see so much visual marketing that we have become immune to it, whereas sound affects us in powerful ways.”
Though sound remains an underleveraged branding tool, businesses are increasingly starting to take note. Mastercard removed its name from its logo in 2019, focusing instead on a unique sonic identity across all brand touchpoints. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is perhaps as well known for its “I’m lovin’ it” jingle as it is for the Golden Arches.
With only a handful of companies focusing exclusively on sonic branding, the field has been left wide open for agencies such as Ultra Nordic. It has helped a Finnish hypermarket chain to boost its fruit and vegetable sales by creating a soothing nature soundscape, played via hidden speakers; it has also managed to halve the complaints at a busy passenger terminal for a cruise ship client with a soundscape that focuses passengers’ attention on the thrill of the sea journey.
Ultra Nordic’s highest-profile project so far was with Finland’s national carrier Finnair, which wanted to enhance its in-flight dining. High altitudes diminish our ability to register flavours but sound can change the way we experience what we eat. Ultra Nordic worked with Anu Hopia, a Finnish expert on molecular gastronomy, and Chinese chef Steven Liu to record a soundscape that would improve the taste of food on Business Class flights.
“It’s about understanding the emotions that different sounds evoke and connecting them with a brand’s attributes”
The result was not only a better customer experience but also an increased brand awareness in the Asian market.
An audio brand identity is about far more than a catchy jingle. Ultra Nordic works closely with its clients to gain a deep understanding of the brand, its target audience and its competitors. It then uses analysis to design what the company calls “SX-ID”, its sonic operating system.
Everyone involved with the company has a background in music: some were producers, while others were DJs or artists. “Many ways in which we interact with brands involve sound in one way or another,” says co-founder Antti Suomalainen. “We hear sounds in shops, in apps, on TV and in radio ads – even when we call a company’s helpline and wait for someone to pick up the phone.” Yet, as Suomalainen points out, most companies don’t have brand guidelines when it comes to sound.
“It’s about understanding the emotions that different sounds evoke and connecting them with a brand’s attributes,” says Suomalainen. And it doesn’t always have to be pitch perfect. Once, Suomalainen had to tell a trumpet player that he was playing the notes too well. “The client wanted its audio brand to reflect humanity, so it was OK to miss a few notes.”
Ultra Nordic’s approach is paying off. At the 2018 International Sound Awards, it won more awards than any other audio-branding agency. It has recently opened offices in both Singapore and Berlin. It sounds like we’ll – literally – be hearing more from this company.
Keep your mind open and your ear to the ground for innovative ways to market your brand. After all, there are more approaches than one to make your target market listen.
Harpreet Singh Rai
Society is increasingly interested in our sleep and activity patterns; the market was valued at more than $37bn (€31bn) in 2020 and is forecast to top $100bn (€85bn) by 2027. Finnish company Oura, which was founded in 2013, has developed a lightweight ring that tracks and records such information, giving wearers detailed data about their health. We speak to the company’s ceo, Harpreet Singh Rai.
Tell us about your rise to CEO.
I worked in investment banking after I left engineering college. When I was in the job, I ended up being sleep deprived and in poor health but this improved when I moved to a hedge fund that had a focus on employee wellbeing. It spurred me on to order an Oura ring from Kickstarter in 2015. I realised that on the days that I wore it, I slept better, was more productive and in a better mood. By chance, I met one of Oura’s co-founders at a Whole Foods shop in New York. He saw my ring and said, “That’s the first time I’ve seen it worn outside my office.” We hit it off and spent six hours together. Four months later, I ended up personally investing in the company, put its Series A funding round together and joined the board.
Why did you decide to join a company that was untested at the time?
It was down to an alignment of interest and a belief in the product. If you talk to engineers and doctors in this industry, they would probably tell you about all the shortcomings of wearable technology. But Oura showed that you can simply measure that data on a finger.
What’s the biggest challenge for the company as it grows?
A lot of companies grow and tend to move more slowly. We want to create the right systems, tools, processes and environment to make sure that we still have the agility of a start-up and an open culture where everyone can share ideas.
The Powerhouse, a handsome brick building on the edge of Victoria’s Old Town in British Columbia, has long been a symbol of the Canadian city’s evolution. Designed by architect John Teague, who later briefly served as Victoria’s mayor, the complex opened in 1892 as a power plant, lighting up the city’s first electric streetlamps and bringing the initial stretches of its public tram network to life. Since the beginning of 2021, however, the thrum of sewing machines has been heard at the building in its new guise as a manufacturing facility of ethical clothing brand Ecologyst.
“A lot of the manufacturing once done in Canada has moved offshore,” says Rene Gauthier, who founded Ecologyst in 2002. Nearby, needleworkers are finessing panels for a line of jackets made from sustainably sourced camel hair, a part of Ecologyst’s autumn collection. “That pushed us to open up our own factory here in Victoria to meet the demand. Our customers wanted it.”
Ecologyst opened its first factory in the city in 2018, a far smaller operation than this new facility in the Powerhouse. Here, the ground floor of the vast space also serves as a showroom where loyal customers and curious passers-by can peruse clothes from current and forthcoming collections, all of which are made in small batches to minimise waste. “In our industry, overproduction is a huge issue,” says Gauthier. “Companies often make too much so they have to discount it. But if they’re a more premium or luxury brand and discounting isn’t an option, they either burn products or put them in landfill, which is crazy.”
Ecologyst’s pieces are assembled at sewing stations arrayed around the vast space, which was designed by Victoria-based architect Colin Harper. Gauthier points to a set of sleek, unobtrusive floor-to-ceiling shelves, stacked neatly with white boxes. “That whole wall, it’s our inventory,” he says. “It has become this architectural feature. It’s one of the more interesting parts of the space.”
Gauthier has demonstrated a willingness to take risks before. The firm was initially named Sitka after a spruce tree native to the Pacific Northwest but rebranded as Ecologyst in 2019 to avoid a potential copyright wrangle with a similarly named US hunting-apparel company. That decision followed a comprehensive overhaul of its production processes three years earlier, when it abandoned plastic and synthetic fabrics in favour of entirely natural ones, severed its overseas supply chains and returned all of its manufacturing to Canada.
Banks and other lenders were hesitant about funding such a radical shift so Gauthier had to search elsewhere. “Then the light bulb went on,” he says. “We looked into the idea of enabling our customers to be the owners of the company.” Ecologyst now has about 600 small-scale investors who fund the purchase of high-quality fabrics, such as water-resistant cotton for its outdoor coats, while allowing the company to pay its small team of highly skilled in-house makers above-market wages.
“The demand for sustainable clothing is there but the supply isn’t. It’s going to take the newer players, like us, to meet it”
Gauthier’s goal is to replicate this manufacturing format in cities elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Plans for a site in Seattle are under way. “People understand
that they can vote with their wallet and that the purchases they make have an impact,” Gauthier says, referring to Ecologyst’s deliberately small lines and pricing model.
“My view is that the demand for sustainable clothing is already there but the supply isn’t,” adds Gauthier. “Large players can’t just completely rejig their supply chains overnight. That’s why it’s going to take the newer players who have been working on this for a while, like us, to meet that demand. I am confident that we are going to shift the pendulum the other way.”
Move your manufacturing closer to home and you could soon reap the benefits. A tight production run can pay significant dividends for the environment, the community and your business.
Five grounded pilots who made their side hustles soar.
Everyone in Hong Kong seems to have a side hustle and the city’s pilots are no exception. When these first and second officers were grounded by the pandemic, it didn’t take long for them to get down to business. Hobbies and passion projects turned into start-ups and some are now second careers. As revenues start to take off, we check in with three of these transformations.
Ash Clark and Alvin Lam
On the Wagon
Melburnian Ash Clark usually flies long-haul around the world but right now he’s on the 16th floor of a factory in Kennedy Town, a residential area popular with expats in western Hong Kong. The 30-year-old co-founded kombucha brand On the Wagon in January and its headquarters are full of bottle-stocked fridges and vats for fermentation. Three flavours are on sale at several neighbourhood cafés and a Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant: a rapid ascent for an idea that began in Clark’s home kitchen. His best-selling concoction, a mix of darjeeling and assam teas, is a favourite at food markets. “We were selling about 100 bottles a week when we launched but now we can do five times that,” he says.
He is flanked by his business partner Alvin Lam, an artist and former cabin crew member. Lam’s watercolour designs are on every On the Wagon label. Clark and Lam branded the company as an artisanal, non-alcoholic drink rather than as a health tonic because it helps them to broaden the customer base and differentiate their products. “It comes down to balance,” says Clark. “I’ll have a kombucha for every two beers.”
Andy Littlewood and Sean Noreiks
K-Town Roasters has set up shop just a few floors down from On the Wagon. The roastery was founded by Andy Littlewood and Sean Noreiks, who met a decade ago in Papua New Guinea while working for domestic carrier png Air. Both in their thirties, the pair of first officers, who have more than 30 years of flying experience between them, aim to provide locally roasted coffee at palatable prices.
Australian coffee-roasting veteran Noreiks had wanted to set up his own roastery in Hong Kong for years. So when the pandemic reduced his flying hours, he approached Littlewood, who had just been laid off by a regional airline, with a business idea. K-Town Roasters was started in April. As Noreiks and Littlewood navigate the ups and downs of obtaining a food licence, they are busy roasting and blending beans from Indonesia, Ethiopia and Guatemala.
During our visit, Littlewood makes a pour-over coffee, enthusing about the Japanese ceramics in his brewing kit. “At the beginning of the year, I would still have been drinking only flat whites,” he says. He hasn’t given up on flying a330s but he’s certainly on a high for other reasons too.
It’s not just Hong Kong’s Aussie pilots who are pursuing a second career: the city is full of Brits, Kiwis, South Africans, Singaporeans and, of course, Hong Kongers themselves who are starting up their own projects. Second officer Antony Bunker launched his own business in his hometown after seeing countless friends in the aviation industry struggling to promote their new businesses online. So, with flights on hold, the 25-year-old pilot sat down with more than 200 businesses in the city to find out precisely what they needed and Quickdash was born.
The app helps users, often physical-space retailers such as market stalls, to set up an e-commerce shop in minutes, with added features to help them manage orders and track inventories. It now has more than 300 users and 50 online shops, including several pilot-owned businesses.
Bunker plans to partner with a delivery service and expand further with the recently launched web version. Once a blueprint has been created here, he wants to target other countries in the region, with Singapore first on the list. But don’t expect this young pilot to taxi away from the runway just yet. “I’m keen to fly for as long as I can,” he says.
When the pandemic put their day jobs on hold, these pilots wasted no time in taking advantage of their clear schedules. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
On a warm autumn evening, a dozen or so guests have gathered for dinner at Maison Bodega, a restored early-20th-century mansion on the leafy fringes of Minneapolis. Tonight’s meal is the first instalment of a new initiative of Bodega, a creative agency established in 2014 by Liz Gardner and Josef Harris.
Salonnière, named to evoke the salons of 18th-century France, is a modern take on a members’ club. For a monthly subscription that begins at $199 (€168), you can gain access to publications, an online hub and events such as tonight’s nine-course French dinner. This meal is part of a conceptual series called For the Corpse, created with Los Angeles- based photographer Aubrey Devin.
“In the process of bringing our 100-year-old building back to life, we discovered that it had been home to several matriarchs who had facilitated creative and civic conversations,” says Gardner. In the early 1900s, it hosted classes for women on managing their incomes; later it was a venue for readings of new plays and performances of pieces of jazz and classical music. “Salonnière felt like a natural extension of that history,” says Gardner.
Salonnière gives its events and subjects for discussion a theme that is updated every three months. Its membership largely comprises people from the creative and design industries but other sectors are also represented, says Harris. The goal is to start conversations and relationships. “We invite our audiences to spend time mulling and meandering,” he says. “We felt that there was an opportunity to bring more information to the trends we’re seeing. That would allow designers, business leaders and others to make better decisions.”
“We felt that there was an opportunity to bring more information to the trends we’re seeing. That would allow designers, business leaders and others to make better decisions”
The members’ club has helped Bodega to reach a wider audience and find interesting projects. “It is crucial for entrepreneurs to understand new opportunities and it’s vital for us to be multidisciplinary,” says Mad Lenaburg, a designer at Bodega. “The relationship between Salonnière’s digital hub and its events has allowed us to better understand our ideas. We hope those conversations and connections will ultimately move the culture forward.”
Don’t just start a business: start a community instead. By bringing people together through your brand, you will improve your project pipeline and develop your ideas further in the process.
Hearst is the founder of two successful fashion brands: Candela, which she built from scratch while a 28-year-old in 2004; and her own namesake label, which launched in 2015. She is also the current creative director of Parisian label Chloé. Having grown up on a ranch in Paysandú, Uruguay, Hearst’s rural roots continue to inform her work.
Tell us about the influence of your upbringing on your career.
I grew up, off the grid, on a ranch where my family has been living for 170 years. When I was a child, the power came from a generator that would be switched off at night. Growing up in such a place, you’re connected with nature and understand that you belong to it – and that nature doesn’t belong to you. It taught me about sustainability because we had to make things to last. It was about quality from a utilitarian point of view and not from an opulent point of view.
How does this experience influence the work that you do now?
In the next year I want to be using 80 per cent non-virgin materials. The goal is to make the highest quality possible while having the lowest impact on the environment. We’re looking at our relationships and time schedules, trying to work them in a better way so that we can ship by boat and not freight by air.
It certainly feels as though it’s a different approach to fashion.
I don’t feel that what we do is like fashion. Rather, I feel that what we do is closer to cooking; I have friends who are chefs and they find that their work is very similar to ours. In both cases it’s about ingredients and how they are sourced. With clothing, as with food, there are things that might look good but don’t necessarily make you feel good. Your skin is your largest organ and you’re putting these things on top of it, so we really need to think about it.
When the pandemic struck, many of us traded in adventures abroad for sojourns closer to home. This left aviation in turbulence but triggered a rise in demand for camping gear. Earlier this year sports retailer Decathlon announced that its tent sales had surged by more than 70 per cent.
But not all tents are created equal. “You can only use many cheap ones for five or six weeks,” says Marc Takken, managing director of Dutch brand Karsten Tenten. “Ours last for 25 to 30 years. We make lifetime tents.”
Made in the Netherlands, Karsten’s products have sold particularly well in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, where demand for European-made tents has been high. Recently, Karsten has started customising and exporting its goods to the South Korean navy and army rescue corps.
Founded in 1981 by Takken’s father, Karsten has had a loyal customer base for decades but the brand could never have predicted its recent success. “2020 was our best-ever year,” says Takken. He is confident that sales won’t suffer significantly even as travel restrictions ease and demand for holidays on home shores wanes. Once people try camping, he says, they tend to stick to it – at least, if they have the right tent for the job.
Paul Noritaka Tange is chairman of Tange Associates, an architecture firm founded by his Pritzker prize-winning father, Kenzo Tange. The studio is famed for public buildings from Japan to Mexico, and has also become known for its dress code, which requires employees to wear a suit and tie. Tange tells us why.
“Wearing a suit and tie was a tradition at the firm started by my father in the 1940s and it’s one that we maintain today. As architects we are not just artists, we are service providers and we are businessmen. In Asia, and Japan especially, all of our clients wear suits and ties to work. As we are serving them, we have to respect them and not offend their work culture. This means it’s important that we look as though we mean business when we go to meetings. So keeping the suit and tie shows respect to our clients and our profession.”
Think about what your clothes are saying about you when you are working with clients. Trying to be too fashionable can make your services look slack and send out the wrong message entirely.
A few years ago, craft workshops might have been the domain of retirees with time on their hands or those seeking a weekend hobby. But recently a significant shift has taken place in the UK. Professionally run short courses in everything from basket weaving to chair caning now command six-month waiting lists.
“A lot of jobs are computer and office-based and people are missing making something tangible and real,” says Rachael South, who teaches modern and traditional upholstery courses at the London Metropolitan University and runs a series of classes on crafting chair seating with cane, rush, willow and cord.
South’s workshops are full of people from all walks of life. Although many of them aren’t necessarily looking to profit from their new skills, some see it as an opportunity for career growth. “They’ll come to train first and they have to practice quite a bit because when you learn you’re much slower,” says South. “But once they’ve sped up and caned, say, 450 chairs, it starts becoming something that’s potentially lucrative.” According to South, many of those who see her courses as a jumping point for a career in craft get part-time jobs while they’re still finding their feet – or establish collectives and studios with other like-minded craftspeople who are also taking their first entrepreneurial steps.
It’s a more organic and less linear approach to business than getting an mba but it might pay off. After all, people aren’t only increasingly interested in making craft; they’re buying more of it too. A report from the UK Crafts Council revealed that the number of people buying artisanal wares in England rose from 6.9 million to 31.6 million between 2006 and 2020. So if you’re thinking of trading in the mouse and keyboard for a caning needle, now might be the time.
The past 18 months have posed profound challenges for businesses. But they have also thrown up new opportunities and revealed some truths about what’s essential to our economies and the communities we live in. As many businesses bounce back, there are a host of possibilities to be harnessed by entrepreneurs who have learnt lessons over the past year. Here are five openings that we would put our money on.
Companies with short supply chains
The precariousness of global supply routes has been laid bare by the pandemic. It’s a development that has made it more appealing to manufacture closer to home and is why smaller independent makers in specialised centres, such as shoe brands Unmarked and Miles & Louie in the Mexican footwear capital of León, have been able to keep up with demand despite slowdowns elsewhere.
The neighbourhood shop
It’s a case we’ve been pushing for years but the importance of the neighbourhood shop has never been more evident. Many became cornerstones of their communities and city economies in the pandemic. They proved their flexibility and boosted offerings, with bakeries becoming miniature supermarkets and cafés turning into bottle shops.
Green energy suppliers
Some environmentally savvy energy suppliers have seen their share of the consumer-energy market climb. London-based renewable-energy company Octopus, founded in 2015, doubled its UK customer base in the 2019 to 2020 financial year to more than two million people. It shows that demand for green energy is growing.
“Our employees now volunteer at food banks, clean up parks and hang holiday lights along the main streets”
City infrastructure planners
Building cycleways, bridges and other infrastructure is a central plank of efforts by governments worldwide to kick-start their economies. Playing your part as an architect, engineer or investor will bring benefits to your city – and your bottom line too.
Independent delivery services
Many consumers are becoming aware of the cut that food-delivery giants take from the small, independent businesses whose goods they transport. Targeted, locally owned delivery services can crack that stronghold. During the pandemic, Toronto’s Annex Market sold goods produced nearby and delivered them within the city – and customers have since stayed loyal.
Company villages or towns were a popular concept with industrialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The idea was that a corporation could build an urban environment – complete with housing, markets, parks, schools and social programmes – in which its employees would live, work and play, thus improving their quality of life while also attracting other associated businesses and infrastructure to the area.
Although the model resulted in some notable successes – including Hershey in Pennsylvania and Bournville in the UK – the number of such schemes has dwindled. But that doesn’t mean there’s not some merit to the proposal. Indeed, it’s why the likes of Google and Facebook build campuses for their workers, and why many Italian villages have set up programmes with the aim of enticing ambitious and visionary entrepreneurs to their enclaves.
Here we spotlight three companies from more recent times that have provided large-scale employment and given back to their communities. In some cases they’ve done it so successfully that we think a municipal name change should be on the cards.
Technology company Zoho first established an office in the village of Silaraipuravu (population 2,100) in 2011. Its initial six-member team has since grown to 500 employees. During that time, surveys have shown that over 60 per cent of Zoho’s employees believe that livelihoods have improved across the community. This is largely thanks to Zoho’s revamp of schools, investment in hygiene and waste infrastructure, and establishment of a farm to provide employment for field workers from the village.
Nestled in the Columbia River Gorge in Washington, Insitu, an unmanned aerial vehicle company, has earned Bingen the nickname of “Dronetown”. Founded in 1994 (and a subsidiary of Boeing since 2015) it is now the area’s largest private employer, with 900 workers from the small town and its surrounding areas.
Over the past 20 years, Insitu has attracted investment to the region, with former employees forming more than a dozen other drone-related businesses nearby. But it’s not just the economic boom that’s significant. “Giving back has always been part of our culture,” says Jennifer Beloy from Insitu’s communication team. “Our employees volunteer at food banks, clean up parks and hang holiday lights on the main streets.”
Iitate Power Company, Iitate
For generations the mountain village of Iitate, which has a population of 1,400, in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture had been home to farmers who supplied the country’s finest beef and rice. But this changed in 2011 when, following the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant, the village’s future looked to be uncertain. Enter Iitate Power Company. Established as a solar-power producer and financed by 43 villagers, it has introduced a new industry in the village, creating jobs for young people and welcome income for the farmers who host the panels.
While we’re not suggesting your business plan should include proposals for a whole new town, an awareness of the positive effects your company can have on its employees and environment is an important first step.
Are you ready for the country?
Reality TV has long covered the ups and downs of contestants’ entrepreneurial pursuits. Whether a programme is about home renovations or restaurant kitchens, however, showrunners have largely focused on city life, rarely tackling the pursuits of rural entrepreneurs.
New Spanish series Ruralmind seeks to change that. In the programme, which begins in October on streaming platforms Twitch and Youtube, 40 participants will compete to launch successful businesses from small villages.
While its producers hope that this will help to tackle rural depopulation, reactions from residents have so far been mixed. Given that reality TV isn’t known for its fidelity to the facts over a good story, who wouldn’t be a little suspicious?
But let’s hope that Ruralmin d’s contestants spot genuine opportunities for long-term development so the benefits can last long after filming has stopped.
Photographer: Adam Amengual, Andrew Querner, Matthew Hintz, Mark Arrigo.
Illustrator: Marta Signori