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Vancouver entrepreneurs place trust in people power

It’s a business experiment in real people power. Vancouver residents are on their second round of voting to decide what…

By Nichole Jankowski , in Business Feature story , on October 21, 2011 Tags: , , , ,

Business partners Josh Michnik and Michael Leung want residents to tell them what type of business to open in their empty retail space on Union Street.

It’s a business experiment in real people power. Vancouver residents are on their second round of voting to decide what kind of service will go into a downtown social housing building.

More than 400 people voted in the first round and decided that the community around 243 Union St. needed a local service over a restaurant, retail space or other type of venture.

The next poll will determine which type of service. Based on comments and community feedback, people can now select from the options of a grocery store and eatery, bread-focused café and delicatessen or a mixed-use space.

Maya Sciarretta voted in the first poll. “I think it’s really great to get feedback because like any project, collaboration gives you the best results,” she said.

Sciarretta said she is also skeptical of the project and whether it is actually meant to service the community, or simply a clever marketing ploy. A local photographer and designer living in Strathcona, she  questions the creativity of a project relying on a series of polls for inspiration and a business plan. She said she intends to continue voting.

Guided by residents

Behind the polls are partners Michael Leung and Josh Michnik. They hope to have a business plan in place after the second round of voting, which started Oct. 18, including a design for the space, budget and list of resources.

“I had no expectations coming in to be honest,” said Leung, who owns the 600-square-foot storefront called This Space located in Chinatown/Strathcona on the ground level of Solheim Place.

[pullquote]It takes expertise, knowledge, experience, background to run a successful business whatever it may be: restaurant, retail, deli.[/pullquote]He said he was not surprised by the results of the first poll. “We don’t really know who our target market is: is it the local residents, is it destination? Does this street need another destination restaurant or something to draw economic activity to the area … or is there an opportunity to cater to the cyclists?”

Leung said he knows nothing about how to run a sushi restaurant, if that was what the community decided upon. But he plans to get the advice of residents and experts, hire locally and even consult or contract local businesses to help guide his enterprise along the way.

“Businesses are not just anything,” said Larry Beasley, former director of planning for the city of Vancouver. He said businesses usually being with a model based on ensuring profits before looking for a location and consumer base.

“It takes expertise, knowledge, experience, background to run a successful business whatever it may be: restaurant, retail, deli. That’s even more the case when you move out of that typical format into arts, galleries,” he said.

Michnik, friend and co-owner of Charlie & Lee, a clothing boutique located a few doors down in the V6A building, came up with the idea for the project. He said he wanted some control over what was happening on his street.

“I struggled with what everyone else would want because there are so many dynamics and so many different people in the area,” said Michnik.

The model he came up with is an online and in-store polling process to get residents’ input on every aspect of the enterprise, from what type of business it will be to what colour the walls will be painted. The first poll closed with more than 400 responses collected in less than a month, including 131 comments online.

Community will profit from profits

Leung and Michnik encourage the community to go online and vote.

Whether those votes will translate into customers remains to be seen. “I think it really depends on who you’re engaging in your process while you’re getting votes,” said Joji Kumagai, executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association.

“You need to know who your target population is, if you are getting a lot of local residents and those are the types of people you actually want to drive to your store or business then that’s an effective strategy.”

It’s up to Leung and Michnick to find a way to make the voters’ decisions profitable.

“Consumers can tell you what they want — they can’t tell you whether it’s viable or not to deliver,” said Beasley.

“In a way we want people to think about which business they choose makes the most money,” said Leung. Online he has promised to explore investing a portion of profits back into the community, into a charity or project chosen by residents.

Leung said residents will have to decide “[if] they want a profitable business in there which may not service all parts of the neighbourhood, may have narrower access, may only target for example cyclists commuters or the V6A building but generates enough revenues [that] 10 per cent of the profits [can] go back to [the community]. Or do they want a mixed use model which won’t make much money but it will upfront have more access.”

Leung said he is still more excited than nervous.

“They’re already creating that buzz before and I think that’s really the strength of this process,” said Kumagai.