By David Sax (partial reprint from ‘The Entrepreneurs’, issue 4, 2021)
“The business that knows its place as a part of the neighbourhood will be rewarded by the custom of the community.
A year into the pandemic, the toll in the businesses in the neighbourhood community is obvious. Many shopfronts remain empty, their windows boarded up or plastered with a brown butcher paper that has become a sad sight in towns and cities around the world.
Entrepreneurship might be an economic activity but it is built on relationships that are strongest when they are tangible and firmly rooted in the spaces and the people who exist in the physical world. Although we might talk about the impact of digital technology on our lives, and conflate entrepreneurship with a high-flying global technology start-up, the heart and soul of running of your own venture remains analogue.
Sure, you can open a business anywhere with a wi-fi signal and sell your good and services around the world from the comfort of your home but at the end of the day every business, even a virtual one, exists in a physical space, a community. The stronger the relationship of the business to that community, the better off it will be.
During the pandemic, many of the businesses around able to respond directly to the needs of their local market – their neighbourhood, city, region – by quickly catering to rapidly changing needs. Bookshops were able to offer nearby pick-up and delivery services, and others order more puzzles for housebound customers. Restaurants could change their menus to cover takeaway dishes and even offer online wine testing to regular customers. Even accountants were quick to advise their clients on the local effect of emergency business subsidies and any tax breaks that government introduced. The coffee shop around the corner ran beans and drinks to the door of everyone who was afraid to leave home: a restaurant put a pantry and fridge of free goods onto the pavement for residents who needed help to get food (and for others to leave in); and the pharmacist who owned the small independent chemist reached out to her oldest customers in their native language to see who might have questions about vaccines.
The entrepreneurs behind those these businesses knew that their neighbourhood needed because it was their neighbourhood too. They worked here and lived here, so they could respond the to the area’s needs in a heartbeat, far quicker than any large company could. There was no talk of abandoning the city or setting up remotely. They were invested in the area, financially, historically and emotionally, and they started fighting for its survival through this crisis from day one.
In return, the neighbourhood’s residents stood beside their businesses and helped them to survive the long months of lockdown and restrictions. People who had never shopped locally before put their money into the streets where they lived, ordering takeaways directly from restaurants rather than from delivery apps, or going through a slight inconvenience of phoning in a book order rather than clicking on an Amazon link because they witnessed – in all those empty windows bandaged in brown paper – what happened when they didn’t.
The deeper truth is that all of these rested not only on the physical presence of the shops, offices and restaurants here but on the face-to-face human relationships that their presence afforded. When an entrepreneur hangs out their shop sign in a community, they do so in the hope of connecting with other humans. Although in the surface this might seem like a desire for customers, in reality these everyday interactions between an owner and their staff, suppliers, customers evolve into real, meaningful, humanising interactions.
The truth that the pandemic revealed for entrepreneurs is that no business is virtual. They all exist somewhere and the greater the bond that an entrepreneur can forge with the places and people around them, the better off we’ll all be.”
Photo by Tim Mossholder