Tag Archives: business

Down the Rabbit Hole in Lisbon

Well, I think I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of entrepreneurship in Lisbon! I’ve been running around talking to so many small business owners, startup hopefuls, and accelerator-program facilitators that it’s started to seem like each conversation (or pitch) matrixes out and leads to hundreds more people to contact, new programs to look into, buzzwords to decode and on and on…

One thing is for sure: Lisbon is bubbling – everywhere you look there’s a new business initiative being advertised or co-work space being promoted or fresh Portuguese-design shop hawking its wares. Then, when you stop to eat there’s enough homegrown food concepts to make your head spin (and your belly growl). As one person here put it to me, “These days, anything that smells of entrepreneurship is packed.” The activity is so overwhelming that it’s going to take me a bit of time to step back and sort through the hype. As of now my brain may be melting into a goo of jargon-y startup language!

But, even if my brain feels like goo, all the activity is a really good sign because my whole interest with startups and entrepreneurship in Europe began on the question of – why aren’t there more of them? What are the barriers to beginning them and what kinds of conditions would stimulate more innovation?  And then, would entrepreneurship become some kind of answer to problems in crisis-stricken countries? The culture differences between the U.S. and Europe sometimes stand out really strongly in the ways each approaches entrepreneurship. What could the two regions learn from each other?

To explain a little more of where those questions came from: my spark of interest was really triggered last November when Luca and I attended Nova Italian MBA Association’s annual Ivy league conference.  This year it was called “Wake up Italy!” and though the whole weekend was really interesting, a panel called “Start up Italy!” stood out the most to me. The speakers discussed how to combat the “stigma of failure” prevalent in Italy and there were jokes about the “creative” ways an Italian might approach an innovation contest. (One example: “look, I made a square pizza instead of a circle! It’s an innovation! Give me money!”) There was also a startup showcase of new Italian companies– but almost all were based outside of Italy and they all lamented that the laws and climate in Italy were not very conducive to starting and investing in new ventures.

The most exciting speaker was Alessandro Fusacchia, who at the time was an Advisor for European Affairs, Innovation and Youth for a minister in the Monti government, and he seemed to be jumping out of his chair to talk about ideas to make it easier to launch startups in Italy. “Six months ago, nobody in Italy knew what ‘startup’ meant!” he declared. He was working on a task force to promote an entrepreneurship-friendly environment in Italy and the fact that such a task force even existed really got me thinking about all the opportunities that might arise if attitudes changed and some key barriers to new business were removed. (Unfortunately, this specific task force may have gone out the door when the Monti government failed and the Letta coalition took over in the spring.)

I still have a lot to learn, but Lisbon has been a great place to start sniffing around because they are making a huge effort to become the home of “the next Skype” (as they say in the industry).

I’m still not sure how much the current trend for entrepreneurship in Portugal is a reaction to the crisis or just a matter of changing times in general across the entire globe. I definitely meet a lot of people who say, “well, I was unemployed or felt stuck in my job, so I figured it’s time to start my own thing.” But without the ecosystems in place, their chances for following this path would be extremely difficult, and the people who built up the ecosystems were not necessarily concerned with the crisis per se, but with building an entrepreneurship network because they believe in supporting it.

It also remains to be seen how much of the current boom in entrepreneurship will lead to lasting effects – there can be a lot of interesting ideas, but will they lead to full-fledged companies, lower unemployment figures, and contribute to a healthier economy? My time in Lisbon so far has given me plenty of food for thought and I’ll probably be writing a lot about this in the coming days!

Guacamole Enters the Scene

Well, look what I found in Madrid! A Chipotle copycat, right near Puerta del Sol.

IMG_0854

For those of you who know me, one of my personal interests is exploring the European relationship with…guacamole. I believe that they (or at least Italians, who I know the best) just don’t get enough of the delicious green mixture in their lives, which is a shame…and also a mystery. Why don’t people eat more avocados?

When I first made guacamole for Luca’s family, his mom told me that long ago she had bought an avocado out of curiosity – but she couldn’t figure out how to peel it. And I don’t think she’s unique in having little experience with avocados. Many of my Italian friends admit to going years without eating it, and I’ve often caught them awkwardly dipping into their guacamole with – gasp – potato chips instead of tortilla chips! These people need help!

Well, looks like a group of Spaniards who spent time in California have beaten me to my dream of opening up an avocado mix-and-match fast food spot, at least in Spain. Their place, open for a year, is called Aguacate Grill, and seems geared mainly to attract tourists, with an English menu and located around the corner from one of the busiest tourist thoroughfares.

Here’s my critical assessment: I thought the loud cartoonish décor and cramped seating area were pretty ugly. With dark yellow lighting and absence of a frenzied fast-moving assembly line, the ingredients didn’t look very fresh and the uncomfortable stools next to the counters weren’t very inviting. The rules on toppings were complicated and I could only get one topping with my quesadilla, which doesn’t seem the best way to entice customers unfamiliar with Mexican food (though perhaps Spanish customers are more familiar with it). The identity even seems confused – who ever heard of California Tex-Mex? I tried the guacamole. It was passable – but it’s got nothing on my dad’s recipe!

I think there could still be room for a Guacamole Girls restaurant to enter the scene…

A Certain Shade of Italian Business

Wow, it looks like my questions about the relationship between Italian business + tradition (triggered by the “balsamic incident“) were actually quite timely! I didn’t come across it until yesterday, but last week the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by the former owner of an Italian family textile company, and it centers on the same issues I was thinking about. His article, about a very special periwinkle coat, is a great add-on to the conversation because it gives a personal look at the virtues of the Italian way of doing business and a more tangible sense of what we may be losing in the process of the drive for efficiency. Below, a short excerpt from the intro:

I know them all by heart, believe me, the arguments in favor of globalization. I’m well aware that it has helped lift tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of people out of poverty. I’ve listened to great thinkers describe in lofty tones how it constitutes a historical necessity. I’ve heard them say that globalization offers advantages to every consumer.

Let me tell you another story. The story of consumers who return home, every night, and become people, consumers who can no longer consume anything at all, except perhaps their lives. The story of the losing side, those who have realized, over the course of just a few years, that they have been left behind by history. The story of the raving ones, the furious ones, the ones who yearn for the past.

Of all the stories that I could tell you about the naïve belief, held dear around the world, that making fine-quality products would preserve us from failure and bankruptcy, I’ve chosen one of the happiest ones.

-Edoardo Nesi

[Full Article]

Balsamic Culture Clash

This past week I’ve been frantically trying to get in some last minute preparations before leaving for my trip to Europe, but I got a good taste of what I’m probably going to encounter when I get there- right around the corner in the Lower East Side!

Luca and I decided to eat lunch at a very authentic Italian spot owned by a woman from Milan. It’s so authentic that they aren’t open on Sundays and close every weekday at 7 PM on the dot – a reason that we rarely visit even though it’s only three blocks away.

I decided to order a simple mozzarella-tomato-basil panino, and as our waitress was setting down the food, I asked if she could bring me a bottle of balsamic vinegar.

A few minutes later the owner was towering over our table.

“Who asked for balsamic? What are you going to do it with it?” she asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

“Oh, I’d just like to add some to my panino,” I replied, smiling politely.

“We don’t change our recipe,” she said, clearly very offended.

Of course I tried to reason with her, to explain that I was not asking her to change anything, merely to give me the option of balsamic vinegar on the side. Even Luca jumped in on my behalf, but his friendly Torinese accent was of no use. She would not budge on the principle that her recipe was her recipe, and no one was allowed to change or pollute it.

Naturally, I stewed in American-customer self righteousness after her refusal. Didn’t she understand that the customer is always right? I threatened loudly to Luca that I’d just go home and grab a bottle of balsamic and bring it back. I told him, “Well, if they are going to be so Italian, let’s be Italian too and not leave a tip!” Of course Luca was surprised that he had been caught off guard byt the owner’s reaction. Back when he lived in Italy he never would have thought that asking for something extra was normal.

I’ve always said that the biggest negative I experience in my travels to Europe- and specifically Italy, where I’ve traveled the most- is the customer service. Waiters and restaurant owners are frequently crabby and act like they are doing you a favor to let you sit in their restaurant and eat their food. They raise their eyebrows and make fun of you if you ask to add an extra topping to a pizza or want to bring home leftovers. They make you pay extra for sitting down instead of standing at the counter. And don’t even mention the word vegetarian, which is normally greeted with confusion, scorn, or both.

This normally frustrates me because it seems not only rude, but also like purely bad business practice that weakens Italian/European businesses and puts them at a disadvantage compared to the more flexible American model. Why not let people sit down for free if it’s not busy (and it rarely is)? They might linger and buy more from your cafe. If you allow customers a bit of freedom to choose toppings or get something on the side, the dish might be more to their liking and they’d return to eat more often. At the very least, a pleasurable dining experience wouldn’t drive customers away.

But, the reason I found the balsamic incident so interesting is because it also frames a sort of hypocritical impulse surrounding Italian business in general. On the one hand, we value Italy so highly for its supposed steadfast adherence to long-held traditions and its vaunted attention to quality and technique. It’s what millions of visitors look forward to when they plan a trip there or even when foreigners buy Italian products likes clothing and food at home. So, on one side, the impulse is to promote tradition and authenticity as the soul of Italian industry, a strength upon which Italians can draw from to bolster their economy.

But what happens when tradition seems to be simply bad business practice? Many political commentators push to propel Italy into the 21st century, recommending it streamline regulations, get rid of inefficient practices, and follow examples from other countries that would free Italian business and tourism to shine. But the problem is, many of the irregularities in Italian business may be just what protects that valued tradition.

How to disentangle it? To me, the owner’s reaction to my request for balsamic was simply bad business. Why should I return to her restaurant if I could get balsamic happily handed to me at any other place in New York? To her, she was protecting her tradition and the quality of the product she had prepared.Who was I to mess with her perfectly calibrated sandwich?

So, what about when I bit into my panino? Well, I can’t say I wouldn’t have relished soaking it in a tub of balsamic vinegar like a greedy American anyway – ha ha. But, yes, it was truly delicious just the way her recipe had ordained it.

Does the Italian way of doing business have something to teach us after all? Was I in some way polluting it by suggesting to change the recipe? Do some of the recommendations for Italians to ‘get with the program’ even represent a threat to Italian tradition and quality – and could thus undermine it?

Let me know your thoughts! And also, because I’d love to commiserate, tell me about  your worst dining experience in Europe!

Chinatown store thinks outside the box with 1’-by-1’ cubes for rent

The Columbia Spectator 

CUBE

Tucked away on a quiet stretch of Broome Street between SoHo and Chinatown, a new store is introducing a shopping concept already popular in China and Japan to New York. Marketed as “New York’s First Cube Store,” the Shopping Box (360 Broome St.) is slowly making its mark in a city of niche consumers and creative vendors.

The owner of the Shopping Box, Hong Kong native Janelle Fung, doesn’t sell any products herself—she sells space. The shop is covered with boxed-in shelves, white cubes waiting to be filled with wacky merchandise. [Full Story]