We’re with Petra Barran, founder of street food incubator and market KERB, to hear tips and advice for new food and drink brands. Plus, we’re with the CEO of MikMak to learn about her company’s big and bold experiment in remote work.
DANNY GIACOPELLI: Hey guys, welcome back to the Courier Weekly. I'm Daniel Giacopelli, Courier's editorial director. We're all about telling amazing stories of modern business, with tips on working better and living smarter. This week on the show, we look at lessons in business and life from a newly reopened food hall here in London. And then if you could live and work from anywhere, and keep the same salary, where would you go? This week, we're in New York to look at one company's big experiment in remote work.
First, I'm with Petra Barran, founder of the street food incubator and market, KERB. Back in late April, on the Courier Daily podcast, we spoke with Petra about the state of her business. At the time, KERB had recently closed its brand new Seven Dials market just as it was about to reach profitability. Well, today the market has officially been reopened for one week. So I thought we would catch up with Petra, again, to find out what she's learned.
PETRA BARRAN: I think the whole world has moved from the abstract to the 'Oh, Shit,' right in our face and getting really crunchy time. I think it's really interesting, because in March, April, May, it was all quite theoretical, being able to look at the whole issue, the whole business, the whole world from a distance and have all these expansive thoughts about it. And then it gets closer and you're like, hang on, we've got to actually confront this in real life now, and we're in the face. So, if March when we spoke was like I said, in the bunkers, but kind of quite abstract, this is properly on the front line, and very real.
In relation to Seven Dials Market, it’s about how to make a space that’s so big, sol, and so needy of lots of people coming through it all the time, work, in August, in a pandemic? So it's pretty interesting.
DANNY: Yeah, totally. You guys wrote on your Instagram recently, when you were announcing that you were reopening that it's been a maelstrom of navigating landlords, investors, creditors, new contracts, old contracts, and furloughing and redundancy for some people. It's a total roller coaster for you guys, and for a lot of businesses around the world. When we talked last, as you said, it was still all theoretical, you didn't really know what was going to hit. But lo and behold, you guys have survived. What have you gone through in terms of the brutal reality of navigating all of those practicalities?
PETRA: Well, it's kind of complex, because we're talking about three different businesses in a way. KERB is the main business, which is the markets and the traders, And then we've got the corporate catering side of the business, which is a whole other part involving large scale events for people like Facebook and Google, the Natural History Museum and Billingsgate Market. That's all kind of stopped. Finally, we've got the food hall, which we've reopened last weekend.
Across the board, we've had to deal with redundancies, which has been really unpleasant and sad, because everyone was doing great, and no one's done anything wrong, but you still have to confront the reality of the fact you don't have the money coming in to support all of those people. Furlough is a really interesting and weird one. In terms of people being on and off furlough, and the whole kind of blurred line around what it means.
One of the biggest problems that a lot of us are having to deal with, is not just surrounding the fear of the pandemic, but also the reality of people going 'hang on a minute, I actually prefer being at home, I actually don't really want to go back to work,' and that's going to affect all of us. So you're dealing with that kind of energy as well. We originally said, we're not going to reopen until January. Yet, here we are in August opening. I think we just got to a point with our landlords, and also with ourselves of feeling fed up of sitting around wondering. We just wanted to get out there and have a go and be part of the people trying to make central London come back to life.
DANNY: For Seven Dials, when were you allowed to reopen? A lot of restaurants have been open for quite some weeks. Were you guys allowed to open when the restaurants did? Or as a food hall? Did you have different guidelines?
PETRA: We would have been allowed, but that felt too early. August is still kind of early. September would probably be a more sensible month to open, but that's where we are, that's what we're doing. We don't expect August to be the biggest boom in the year. We just want to start, we've got traders in there who want to get going again, who are keen to get back in front of their customers, who want to make a real burger for them rather than send out a meal kit. People want to come back out and eat too. I mean, let's just do it and then at least we're not dealing with abstracts anymore. We're dealing with the issues as they come along, and living the reality of it all.
DANNY: Let's talk about the traders. At Courier, we're keen to talk about, you know how small businesses have fared. You have tons of traders at Seven Dials, have any gone under?
PETRA: I wouldn't say gone-under. One business has split up and they've just stopped trading, and haven't come back. We have made the decision not to reopen. The food hall is two different areas. It's Banana Warehouse and Cucumber Alley, and Cucumber Alley was mainly producers. We made the decision to just focus on Banana Warehouse, where we have had seven of thirteen return.
There's different reasons for all of those. One is that we wanted to change one of the stores into a bar, one of the traders was going to go into Cucumber Alley anyway, and then for a couple it just wasn't working out. We've got the magnificent seven in there doing their thing.
DANNY: Small food and drink companies have gone through hell in the past couple months, a lot of them have closed around the world. Do you think that the pandemic has changed the fundamental nature of what it means to run a 1) food hall and then 2) to be a food trader and have a food stand? As a food hall, you have to cap the number of people that can come in, so you have quite a lot of restrictions. Is that a ceiling of growth for you guys?
PETRA: No, it's just what we've got to do to survive right now. We have to put in place the measures in order to be viable, in order for people to even feel like they want to come in here. We very much see this as what we're going to do for now: you're going to be met at the door, you're going to have your temperature checked in a really unobtrusive way, you're going to be shown to your table, you're going to be ordering your food from the table click + collect, pink sanitation stations all over the place.
Our whole thing is about making people feel safe in a really unobtrusive way. You can see there's somewhere to sanitise your hands wherever you look, you don't have to leave your table if you don't want to, you can see that you've been spaced out. But equally and ultimately, if people want to get up from the table and go to the vendor and order their food, that's fine, too. There's enough space for everybody to be able to manage it in the way that they can. The main thing is that people turn up and they can see that we're on it without making it really, really militant. Food halls are supposed to be roaming, for spontaneously turning up at, for feeling like you have agency inside that place. The last thing we want to do is remove that agency, because then you're removing the whole point of being in that place.
Our budget means that we're not going to be drawing any kind of profit, it's just to keep our head above water and to keep the thing alive. There's a lot to be said for the energy of activation, of getting a place open again. At least then you can make changes, make improvements. Restarting takes so much energy, and so we're just all relieved to have just got off the starting blocks again.
DANNY: With all of the safety information you wrote on Instagram, you want to get the right balance between sorted and unawkward. It could be awkward getting up then having the equivalent of a school teacher say that you need a hall pass to go get food. It goes against the whole fun and social nature of being in a food hall.
PETRA: I know. It's my ultimate fear for people to turn up and feel awkward, or for it be sterile. It's a really weird and hard one to tread, and in this country, everyone's doing it in the way that they see fit. There's no national level of observance like in Italy, where my brother lives, and where everyone is on board with the same rules. It's just totally up for negotiation here, which makes it difficult. Ultimately, we have to put trust in the people that come there as well. I think it's really, really important that people are trusted to act the way that they need to act for them to be safe without being dictated to, or mediated and made to feel like morons.
DANNY: KERB as a business is interesting in the age of Covid, less confined to a building and more to other areas of growth.
PETRA: Yeah, in my head there's three businesses, but there's a restructuring that we are going to be doing which is exciting, in terms of making all three make sense under the same umbrella.
What's happening all over the place right now, is that people are connecting with each other and joining forces in order to make the situation better, and in order to give the best chance possible of going forward. There's a choice to either stay really small, really agile, and on the balls of your feet, or to connect with other people that can help you continue and ride the wave. In terms of the corporate catering side of the business, we're looking to do that, and we're looking to create more opportunities and partner up in order to open up more doors for that whole side of the business.
DANNY: Corporate catering, even though there's no real offices set up anymore?
PETRA: No, but we're talking to a company at the moment who have contracts with football stadiums. Even if you are not able to go and cater inside the football stadium, because the fans aren't allowed to enter, they're talking about possibly setting up fan parks outside of the stadiums. That is the real beauty of what we do, we can be anywhere. We could set up a trader in a kiosk at somewhere like the O2, that would be permanent, or semi permanent. Or if we were in one of these big stadiums, we could just set up a rolling food truck. There's so many different ways of doing it.
KERB started as an incubator. It's been really interesting to observe how we've developed and grown. We're nearly eight years old, and we've got a lot of traders on our books now. This has been a moment to reassess the value of looking after a trader community and nurturing a trader community. How can we best do that? Can we best do that with lots and lots of traders? Or do we need to go back to the drawing board and look at how we do that more impactfully, but maybe with less traders? There's a great opportunity at the moment, less so for scaling up and helping businesses get investment and more so for finding the people with the ideas just in their heads. For helping them to germinate those ideas and give them the necessary support to build a platform, find the connections.
It's going to be a really interesting moment for all sorts of new and different businesses to enter the food industry. That's what I'm most excited about; creating the spaces for them to get a start, and then making the introductions once they've got their start, to maybe go onto this market, corporate catering, or to occupy spaces in food halls. I think we're going to see huge numbers of new businesses starting with different kinds of ideas, ones that are much more community focused and look to paying it forward.
DANNY: That's we're really excited too at Courier, the types of new companies that might be spawned from this crisis. As the old saying goes, every crisis is an opportunity. Back then you predicted what sorts of businesses might come out of this, but I am wondering if that view has changed in terms of what sorts of businesses might come out of this crisis? We've seen the rise of vacuum packed food delivery, we've seen the rise of kind of restaurants becoming grocery stores. What other pivots and adaptations do you think we might see from small food companies out of this crisis? Having a food stall and a food stand is probably the tip of the iceberg for a food business launching in 2021?
PETRA: I think the future of all business is the benefit corporation model. Whether you're officially a B Cor, or whether you inhabit the goals, the spirit and the mission of B Cor, it's to exist for more than profit. It's to exist for people, and planet and profit. People have had a moment to stop and ask themselves, 'what the hell is the point of this whole charade called life? What matters to me, and what's important is looking less and less robust in terms of all the pomp and the image, and the incredibly expensive interior of restaurants. I think that's just diminished, or at least has reduced a lot of people's interest in that kind of stuff.
What feels more sustainable is to build community, to create opportunities, to address your own privilege and to see how you can really contribute to the area that you live in; to look around you and pay attention to more than just London and big cities. They lend themselves to this tunnel vision and to operating in autopilot. You go from your house to your work, and you don't really pay so much attention to everything that is going around you because you're so busy and intent on your project. This has given us a really amazing opportunity to look around us and look more laterally at what life actually is and what feels important. Levels of importance have really changed.
DANNY: What would you say to the owner of a burger company, or the owner of a vegan falafel company? You could talk about B Corporation models and community, those are incredibly important, but they won't put food on the table. If you were talking to someone in the incubator, what would you say? What advice would you give?
PETRA: Think about coming with more than just a great burger. It's not enough anymore.
DANNY: From a branding perspective to convince consumers or just for corporate governance?
PETRA: What we've seen over the last 10 years of street food being this springboard to those glorious five restaurants, is loads of people coming along saying, 'right, if I get my first food truck: by year two maybe I've got two, year three maybe I've got three, and then now I've got an investor, and I can get those five restaurants'. But I don't think it's really about that anymore. It's about what you bring to the party. What are you adding? Who are you employing? Who are those burgers for? Where did those burgers come from?
It's really hard, because the customer has got a really unrealistic view of how much things cost. That's going to be the biggest thing that changes. You asked me earlier about how it's going to change in the way people do business, there's going to be a huge reduction of restaurants as not all of them are going to survive, there's going to be a reduction of people wanting to go out to restaurants all the time, because lot of restaurants are going to need to put their prices up to make it even worth the work. That in turn, is going to make customers go out less. Dining out is going to be much more of a special occasion. That's a whole other conversation. The real issue at hand is the true cost of food, and it's something that is going to be looked at by people more.
Street food is a difficult one, because people come along and think that because it's on the street, it can't be costing much to produce, that the rent's not high, that there's low overhead. So then, they wonder why they are being charged £10 for a burger. There's a lot of reeducation that needs to happen around that.
The business owner coming with that real level of intent, why do I exist as a business if it's not necessarily to have my dream five restaurants one day? What is it about the burger that is so important that people are going to care enough? And that is going to keep me excited enough? What opportunities am I creating through selling that burger? For what kind of people?
DANNY: If the fundamental end goal on the horizon of five restaurants no longer exists? What then is the end goal of a young food and drink business wanting to grow?
PETRA: We have to reassess what growth means. Growth has been stuck in the 80s for a long time. It's like, grow, grow, grow without intention, without impact, without scale. And what is scale? What is sustainable in the true sense of the word? What is going to be around, and what is going to withstand such things as pandemics? Those are the questions that we really need to be asking ourselves. What is a really robust business? A really robust business is a business that people fiercely love, and will support through thick and thin, and that's team, that's customers, that's your product being something you're really proud of and that you’re charging adequately for. It’s belonging in the area that you sell. Even if you're on the go all the time, you make yourself at home where you are and people require you.
DANNY: So, it's no longer going into a lab and developing a cronut and expecting queues to form. It's more about building a real business in the old community centric way. More roots than surface level.
PETRA: Yeah, it really is, and remembering that we are all part of an ecosystem. It's not about the heavy emphasis on individuated success because that is going to expire in no time. It's really about how to stitch in with everything around you, and with where you've chosen to make your life. Growth is not about how to be bigger, but more impactful.
DANNY: That was Petra Barran from KERB. Next up, we're in New York. Rachel Tipograph is the founder and CEO of an e commerce marketing startup called MikMak. When MikMak launched back in 2015, it tried to reinvent infomercials for millennials with short thirty second videos. It since pivoted to enterprise software, helping brands measure their e comm marketing.
Mikmak has been on an absolute tear recently, it's growing like crazy. Rachel says the company's grown over 70% since early March. They're also hiring like crazy, and they recently napped a $10 million series A. But what's really interesting about MikMak is what it's planning to do with all of those new employees. Months ago, MikMak closed its New York office. While tons of companies have adopted a wait and see approach to how and when they re enter the office, Rachel's put a stake in the ground, and said it's not happening until there's a vaccine. Instead, she's launched a new plan called MikMak Anywhere, which says that her employees can live and work anywhere they want in the US, that MikMak will recruit talent from anywhere in the US, and that existing staff will keep their current salary, even if they move somewhere cheaper. I caught up with Rachel to find out the pros and cons of that plan.
RACHEL TIPOGRAPH: Week of March 9th was when Covid became real in the US, and absolutely in New York. Our office is based in Soho, and funnily enough, we moved in on January 1st. We were in a brand new fancy office, totally decked out with MikMak branding and everything you could imagine a fast growing startup to look like. My Head of Finance has a different disposition than me, and he's more conservative, which is why he's my Head of Finance. He pulled me aside and said that we were probably going to have to shut down the office. It was a shocking thing when he said that to me, but I understood the sentiment. Fast forward by the next day, you were starting to see different forms of closure across New York in the US in general.
My whole attitude is let's not dwell on these decisions, because a startup's greatest asset is time, and the quicker I can make this decision, the better it is for the company. What I decided on March 10th, is that we were going to be shutting down the office temporarily. I have the same data points that my employees do, so I don't actually know when things are going to get better, and in fact, I think they're going to get worse before they get better. As a result, I needed everyone to take their computers home. My employees live in the five boroughs of New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island. I told everyone to grab their monitors, hug everyone goodbye, hopefully we're back in a month or so, and I'll pay for your Uber. It's obviously been way longer than a month.
DANNY: When did you decide on the rather drastic steps that you took that would become MikMak anywhere as a programme? When was that like the lightbulb moment?
RACHEL: What I told employees was that at the end of March, I would give them another update. At the end of March, my update was the soonest we're reopening the offices is June 1st. As we started to approach June 1st, it became abundantly clear to me that we were not going back. I decided to get ahead of it again, and I made an announcement that the soonest we would be returning back to the office was Labour Day. Then, all of a sudden, come June and early July, you started to see cases spike again all around the US. You started to see reports come out even from South Korea, that once kids returned back to schools, it spiked again. I was reading all these reports that were coming out in Korea and China, how people were handling returning to office, and it was an eighteen step programme. It seemed completely miserable to me, and the kicker was that MikMak just closed a major round of funding, and part of the diligence process was my new major investors requested an in-person meeting, because we had only met each other via Zoom.
Whilst we had spent one hundred hours on Zoom together, and I felt like these people were my brothers, they were writing me a very large cheque and so they requested to meet in a neutral space. They're based in Boston, I'm here in New York, and they rented a hotel conference room in Greenwich, Connecticut. Myself and my Head of Finance, Greg went. We all wore masks, we all brought our hand sanitisers. We were in this huge conference room that could probably fit up to thirty people, and yet there's five of us sitting more than six feet apart. And for a six hour work session, it was so uncomfortable. That was the moment that it all crystallised for me.
My company has grown over 70% since the week of March 9th, we're in e commerce, we help grocery liquor brands, it's accelerated our business. We've proven that we can work in the cloud, which I believe is a privilege, not everyone can do that. My girlfriend is in the service industry, she doesn't have that luxury. I said to myself, how is this all gonna play out? Do I really believe that we're ever going to be returning to the office in the foreseeable future, and man, am I spending so much money on our Soho rent right now, that I would much rather reallocate to invest in my employees, and in their professional development.
I'm also one of the only companies that's growing in New York right now, and for commercial real estate in New York over the next year, it’s going to be the hardest time of their lives. I am going to have a litany of options once I am ready to get some form of a physical presence again. All of that: meeting the external data points, my own individual experience of an in-person meeting wearing a mask, the proof points that my business is growing remotely, led me to make the decision that I believe it's a privilege and a luxury to be able to work for a company that allows you to have as much autonomy over your own time in your own location. That's the new value exchange with employees. It's not the ping pong table, it's not the free snacks in the office, it's saying be the person who designs your happiness, have as much control over your own life and redefine what it means to have work-life balance.
The reality is, the average commute in the US is two hours every day. With this new time back, what do you want to do with it? What do you want your life to look like? Spend more time with your family. It was funny in the decision making process, because what I felt was that my mid level and senior employees would be very excited about it. The employees that I was most concerned about were my twenty something employees, because when you're twenty-something and you move to New York City, you're starting your life, work is your social life, like it was for me. It's kind of cultish, everyone drinks and works out together, and it's really beautiful, and so I was most concerned about them. I still am. Even if their friends' offices are reopening, I'm pretty confident they're going to close really quickly once we see a spike again in September and October in New York.
DANNY: I noticed the same thing as well. If you're thirty-something, forty-something, this is a breeze if you have a stable job. But if you're twenty-two, you want that after work beer with your friends. You want to meet your social circle, or to find a boyfriend or girlfriend who's a co-worker. All these things are just not going to happen now if you're not going to the office. So, that was the context for why you decided to set up a programme that addressed all of this. I'd love to go through all the different points of what MikMak Anywhere is. So the first one in the blog post that you wrote, is that employees can live and work wherever they want in the U.S indefinitely.
RACHEL: My office is in Manhattan. New York City is a very expensive place to live. As someone who lives in Manhattan, it's not an enjoyable experience to spend your entire day in your little box, and if my employees don't want to stay in their little box, and they want to move to the Catskills or Nashville or back to their parents in Montana, why not? That was the first major decision. There's a lot to that aspect, because the big change with remote work is going from synchronous work to asynchronous work. You have to have a lot of policies in place in terms of what is the expectation in communication turnaround? What hours does the entire company have to overlap? And what channels are appropriate for which types of conversations? What does a meeting now mean? But once you figure all of that out, and everyone respects it, go live wherever you want, be happy. If you want a different cost of living, go for it.
DANNY: Part of a way to address the asynchronous thing is for the company to operate on East Coast time.
RACHEL: To be honest, we don't have everything figured out yet. For now, everyone that was an employee based in the New York office, if they decided to move to another timezone they have to work East Coast hours. That being said, I do have employees who in their title, it's MikMak Midwest, or MikMak West Coast. Those people work those hours.
DANNY: The natural result of people being able to work anywhere is that you're able to recruit anywhere. You've opened up your potential skills and talent pool to literally all the states in the U.S, which I imagine would allow you to find so many more diverse people and attract different skills. You could look in places where you would have never looked before, like Maine, Louisiana. Somebody could be living somewhere and have a skillset that was lacking in Brooklyn or Williamsburg.
RACHEL: We were growing like crazy, our revenues grown 70% since March 9th, but my team size has doubled and by the end of the year, we'll have tripled. The reality is the New York talent pool in enterprise software is a self fulfilling prophecy. Most people look like me, they have my background. We have a pretty diverse makeup of the company, but to be honest, except at the leadership level. The leadership team is half female, half men, but everyone is white, and that's not something I'm proud of. I want to be able to recruit from Miami, from Atlanta, from Detroit, from Philadelphia. This allows us to do that.
DANNY: You also noted the fact that you're going to have a hub at some point, an office but that it won't be mandatory for people to go there every day because they'll be working wherever they want to work. But you still think it is important to have a piece of real estate so that people can congregate at some point.
RACHEL: For people who know me, I'm freaking obsessed with real estate. Every single time we have an office in New York, I find a way to get a big, big MikMak sign in the building. I really do believe in having a physical presence. That being said, Covid has changed work forever, in my mind. I believe that physical office spaces are going to become more like event spaces, where it's really designed like a collaborative theatre, where employees can come there to kick off big projects, welcome new hires, do a cool client meeting, and then all company events that might happen a few times a year.
The reality is, the office that we all used to know was just a place for distraction. It's not a place to do meaningful, deep work. To do meaningful, deep work, you need a quiet space. If you've ever surveyed anyone, and asked them when they need to get a big project done, what they do; they'll tell you they're doing it late at night, on the weekends, or they come to the office early before anyone shows up. So, that's why the workforce is more productive than ever right now, because they're home with way fewer distractions.
DANNY: Are you going to take this and play it by ear? Nobody knows how this is going to turn out, the remote work experiment. All the science says you just said suggests that we might be more productive, we might be happier, we might have less distractions. Some of us might have more distractions with family and kids, but will you kind of check in every month and say how is this working? How can we tweak this model?
RACHEL: We made this huge announcement to the company in mid July. We're now moving into what we call Q3 off sites. So every quarter we do off sites, and even in Covid world, I've been still doing that. A huge theme of our Q3 offsites is defining what is MikMak's remote culture? I believe it starts there. One of the things I've learned over the last six months during COVID, is that culture is not your office branding, culture is not your team happy hours, culture is not the swag that you're giving employees. Culture is really about how you treat your employees, and how they treat everyone else. It's about the actions that people take. In a remote world, actions really matter. For example, the majority of communication with our colleagues is written via Slack.
So what does our tone mean in this new world? What does our response rate mean in this new world? How do you actually work on a collaborative document together, or ship a project? What does the interview process need to look like? And what does it mean to do great work? One of the things that's become abundantly clear to me in the remote work world, is you don't value as much the fact that someone might be like really funny, or really charismatic, because in the remote world, to do great work is to mean two things: is your work smart, and is it on time? It really changes the nature of how you screen people in the interview process.
The first step for us as a collective organisation, is defining our remote culture every three months. The reality is, we check in way more than that because employees do weekly touch bases with their manager, they do monthly touch bases with their department leaders. I do monthly check ins with everyone in the company. I spend so much of my time just doing 15-minute calls or Zooms with everyone in my company. I think it's really important. Right now, we're at sixty people. People come because they want to work for a founder led company, and I need to make sure that they still feel connected to me.
DANNY: And that's it for this week, make sure to check out our latest print edition of the magazine, the design issue all about how to make it work as a creative entrepreneur. And by now, you know, we've also launched our new fresh fund grant scheme for black business founders under the age of 25. To start or supercharge a company with a bit of extra cash, head to couriermedia.co. For more details of Daniel Giacopelli. The Courier Weekly is back again next week. We'll see you then