River CITY INGENUITY
River City Labs
RIVER CITY LABS
It’s a question that weighs heavily on the minds of those who choose to embark on new business endeavours. Longevity and consistent cash flow both depend on strategy, persistence and general know-how. This is as true in Brisbane as any other city. New stores open in promising neighbourhoods with high foot traffic before quietly shuttering within six months; other entrepreneurs seem to attain profitability by hanging around for years and slowly building up a devoted customer base. The difference between these two outcomes is rarely evident to the casual passerby, though clearly, both success and failure require a great deal of work.
At the heart of this scene is River City Labs, which founder Stephen Baxter established as a clubhouse for emerging start-up business owners. The 42 year-old recognised a gap in the industry’s support network, and now rents office space to early-stage project developers who desire a mentally stimulating, communal vibe outside of their home offices. Based in Fortitude Valley, River City Labs has housed roughly 90 groups since opening in March 2012.
“There needs to be serious effort in changing the culture of what’s basically an old coal and cane town.”
“Is it a positive story you’re after, or the truth?” Stephen says with a stern look before being asked anything at all. “It’s anaemic; there’s not as much activity as there could be,” he says of the local technology start-up scene. “There needs to be serious effort in changing the culture of what’s basically an old coal and cane town.” While many possess a desire to be involved, Stephen believes that few possess the drive to see their concepts through to execution. While this is true of many professions, for entrepreneurs it really is a do-or-die situation; when investing one’s own savings into a project, success is crucial.
Stephen’s business career began in 1994, when he made a name for himself in telecommunications by starting Pipe Networks. At the time, Stephen had no technical software background, so he chose to teach himself in order to keep costs down. Although he sold Pipe in 2010 to TPG Telecom Limited for $373 million, Stephen says that his goals were never purely financial. River City Labs is set up as a non-profit; its founder says that the goal is to eventually achieve a positive cash flow. “I think the business will be a success if it’s still there in five or ten years’ time; if we’ve helped a lot of people, and made quite a lot of millionaires,” he says with a smile. “That’d be quite nice.”
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Fellow entrepreneur Mike Boyd is no stranger to success. Having been involved in solo business endeavours for years, he is now CEO of Vroom Vroom Vroom, a popular car rental company. After working on projects in the housing, computing and travel sectors, in 2008 Mike started The Hive, a support network for local entrepreneurs. “It’s a very lonely game,” Mike says of the early years of any start-up. “You’re trying to start something and you’re trying to do it by yourself.” Between holding frequent Hive events, Mike continued to build companies while also helping his peers develop theirs. The 26 year-old is a strong believer in the Queensland capital as an ideal start-up spot.
“I don’t think Brisbane has been inactive in the entrepreneurial space,” he says. “I just think we’ve been quiet about publicising it.” Mike is a DIY kind of guy: instead of expecting government funding to start a project, he believes in his own initiative and dedication. He says that such hand-outs fail to attract the same level of respect as private money, and if an idea is good enough, it will create its own path to success.
“My personal opinion is that I don’t rely on governments to change the world; I think entrepreneurs change the world”
“My personal opinion is that I don’t rely on governments to change the world; I think entrepreneurs change the world,” he says. Mike’s excited facial expressions and enthusiasm for the topic at hand made it clear that he lived and breathed this business. He regularly talks to clients from all around the world via Skype and over the phone, while running Vroom Vroom Vroom from its Brisbane office. “When I’m not running businesses, I’m reading books about it,” he says. “When I’m not doing that, I’m having conversations about it. It’s just my thing.”
Mike believes that success stems from hard work, putting yourself out there, and creating positives out of your failures. He says that this city is a great place to start out and build something, so long as you look in the right places and have a strong sense of determination. “There’s an enormous amount of wealth in Brisbane, and a lot of people doing a lot of clever things,” says Mike. “They’re just happy to go about their business without telling everyone else about it.”
When someone orders sake at Japanese restaurant Harajuku Gyoza, it’s delivered with an extra-ordinary performance. The traditional alcoholic beverage is delivered in a wooden box with a shot glass in the middle. A staff member over pours the rice wine into the glass so it fills up the box. This gesture is a symbol of generosity, freeness and enthusiasm, signalling to the rest of the staff that somebody is about to have a good time and ought to be congratulated.
“Our offering isn’t just about the food, it’s the whole package”
The finale consists of everyone yelling out 'gamate!' - Japanese for ‘go for it!’. It’s a routine that now draws hundreds of people to Harajuku Gyoza each week, and it's something business co-owner Steve Minon is very proud of. “Our offering isn’t just about the food, it’s the whole package,” he says. “It goes down to the music, the fit-out, the colours and logo, but also the style of service we deliver, the kind of people we employ, and the routines we've created for our experience.”
Steve Minon is not your average restaurant owner. He didn’t grow up as a budding chef or have a particular fascination with great food. His path to success brings a fresh angle to the restaurant industry. Steve embodies the idea that you don’t necessarily have to live and breathe your start-up if you have the right people running it for you - a perfect example of an entrepreneur who knows exactly how to play the game. Steve and business partner Matt Bailey worked together in advertising for years before they started Harajuku Gyoza, and the pair believes that this background gave them a head-start in understanding how to market this idea.
Their restaurant is one of the few places in Brisbane that serves gyoza - a traditional Asian dumpling, filled with meat or vegetables - and beer alongside an authentic personality, making it a unique destination for both locals and tourists in the centre of Fortitude Valley. Harajuku Gyoza has developed its own special grills to cook their dumplings to perfection, separating them from the rest. Food and service are equally important to Harajuku Gyoza; both elements are designed to be just as strong as the other in order to create a new experience for diners. The sake routine, in particular, has become such an integral part of its personality that the Brisbane venue is the number one seller of all brands of sake in Australia.
Their overall aim with the restaurant is to mimic the two faces of Japan. One side is the traditional culture, which is sedate and beautifully simplistic. The other incorporates the craziness of Harajuku style and fashion that can be found in Tokyo. This style is evident in the restaurant's bustling atmosphere: staff are dressed in a modern but professional uniforms. Some of the girls sport big bows in their hair; male staff favour bright bandanas. While Thursday afternoon isn't a particularly busy time for the restaurant, the mood was upbeat and efficient. Everyone had a job to do and they seemed happy to go about doing it. This contradiction between personality-rich service and traditional Japanese food is the angle that the owners had in mind.
Minon and Bailey stumbled across the idea of a gyoza bar while on a business trip, working with Isuzu for a campaign with his advertising business, Junior. It was never his plan to enter into the world of restaurateurs. “We just loved the whole atmosphere of Tokyo and we thought it was something that hadn't really been explored that much in the market here,” Steve says, as the chef in front of Steve began slicing a football-sized eggplant. “That's about as much science as was involved!”
After two years of developing the idea, Steve and his business partner launched the first restaurant on Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley in late 2011. Much to their relief, it was an instant success. In September 2013, they launched a restaurant in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Potts Point. The experience in the southern capital has been slightly different, as the gyoza craze was already well established there. Steve also mentioned the wide variety of restaurants in Sydney, which has contributed to the less enthusiastic reception down south. Business has been steady, however, and the owners hope that the second store will eventually reach the same level of popularity that the Brisbane restaurant continues to attract.
Steve stresses the point that Matt and himself aren’t from a hospitality background, and had to learn a great deal very quickly. Their advertising background kicked in and he understood how to target a market and get the restaurant some publicity. A major part of this was knowing when to step aside and let the other professionals involved - including construction workers, chefs and stylists - take the lead.
Their approach is that he doesn’t want to play a major role in the restaurant side of the business. In fact, he said that was crucial to the whole idea. He thinks part of the reason so many restaurants fail is that owners get too emotionally invested in their business to make the right financial decisions. “We removed ourselves from the day-to-day running of the place, so that we can have an overview of the business, test whether we could find the right people, and whether it could run without personalities involved,” he says, while an order of Grilled Pork Gyoza is ferried from the kitchen to a hungry customer.
Everything is thought out in a way that would make it difficult for other entrepreneurs to emulate. The techniques and overall experience at Harajuku Gyoza is completely different to other Japanese restaurants, which can be more peaceful and slow-paced. This was the aim from day one for Steve, and something he continues to work on. His intention is to further spread Harajuku Gyoza across the country, but until then, it remains quite an exclusivity for Brisbane and Sydney.
Before three-wheeled, pedal-powered cabs became a regular sight on the roads of inner-city Brisbane, two middle-aged men had to take the concept on a test run. Travelling back in time to their uni days as pedicab riders, they dug out their bikes from under the house one Saturday night in 2008 and set out to see if people would pay for such a service. After having a great time and pocketing some cash along the way, they decided the opportunity was too good to let it pass them by.
Steven Kenway, 45, is someone with one eye on the road and one on the environment. As co-owner of Green Cabs, he’s created a business that relies solely on sweat, elbow grease and adventure. Nearly five years old, it’s an initiative that has been embraced by residents of the river city.
But it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took Steven and business partner David Burgin over 20 years to act on. “We decided that if we went to another barbecue where we talked about it but didn’t follow through, that was one too many. So we decided to give it a shot,” says Steven.
The Green Cabs store room - complete with 25 bikes - is located at the Kennards storage centre in West End. Steven rolls in on his own bicycle. He’s come from his day job as a chemical engineering lecturer at the University of Queensland. Green Cabs isn’t a full time business for himself or Burgin, but they spend time on it when they can.
Steven disappears for a moment, then returns wearing a bright green polo shirt. He pulls the bike down from its upright position and makes some final equipment checks. As he sets off on a new journey, he speaks of how difficult it can be for cyclists to share the road with motorists. While he says that ‘greenways’ - an interconnected network of on-road bikeways - have added to the safety of cycling through Brisbane, the system is still far from perfect.
“The bicycle track gives you so much more confidence and almost a right to be here. You see how thin the bicycle track gets?” he gestures, pointing at the greenway. “You don't need a traffic island that wide,” he says, while cycling through a busy intersection to the tune of ‘Love Shack’ blasting through the speakers. As traffic bustles on either side of the pedicab, it’s clear these vehicles require more room than a regular bike. Strict council rules and regulations have proven to be a hindrance to the venture: Steven mentions the 20-plus meetings that he and Burgin have had with the Brisbane City Council on this matter, but the two parties still aren’t on the same page.
“The authorities don't quite accept it, so we just have to keep on being the best we can, and keep talking with them”
“The authorities don't quite accept it, so we just have to keep on being the best we can, and keep talking with them,” he says, while waiting for a traffic light to change from red to green. “Council are concerned about space and where the Green Cab ranks will go, I think.” As he rides along Grey Street, past the Australian Broadcasting Company’s headquarters, Steven mentions the council’s CityCycle initiative, a poorly-used subscription service that enables riders to travel by bicycle without having to purchase their own bike.
“I think of CityCycle as like a hire car,” he says. “We're like a taxi. Council has gone to all one solution, which is hire cars - but you don't see that infrastructure for taxis in the city. ”He comes to a stop beside a parked Green Cabs rider beneath the Wheel of Brisbane. Steven reaches to shake the employee’s hand and asks how the day has been so far. Clement Riviere, 21, says he has only been with Green Cabs for a week. Though this Thursday afternoon has been slow so far in terms of fares, Riviere looks relaxed as he basks in the sunshine, proudly advertising the service through his presence alone.
As Steven returns to the cab and sets off along the river, he mentions the environmental plusses behind his business. He and Burgin weren’t too concerned about seeking outside investors, instead opting to put all their own money into the project.
“To be honest, it hasn’t cost us much,” Steven chuckles, “It's grown, but it hasn’t been a big source of income by any means. I think we've been successful, but it's probably driven more by our passion and our belief that it could become something.”
The man in the bright green shirt receives a warm reception from passers-by as he cycles through a shady bikeway along the South Bank foreshore. ‘Billie Jean’ is pumping, and it seems to put everyone in a good mood: one skateboarder even removes his headphones and nods his approval at the superior beats.
Steven wants to work toward a better Brisbane and believes that the Queensland capital’s transport system is in need of an overhaul. “I think a well designed city could actually have a mixture of motorised and non-motorised transport,” he says, citing high density railway, underground rail line and bus routes in addition to non-motorised options like CityCycle, Green Cabs and individual bikes.
While the experience is great fun for passengers, it can also be quite a profitable venture for Kenway and Burgin’s 60 or so riders, too. After Steven merges back into the bike lane on Montague Road, he estimates a good operator could easily earn over $900 per week, including the weekly lease.
As the journey comes to an end, Steven shows off the pedicab’s remarkably tight turning circle before lifting the front of the 180 kilogram vehicle and storing it upright. The business has come a long way since he and Burgin fantasised over the idea at family barbecues - “If our relationship deteriorated, we'd stop,” he says, “But it's probably strengthened” - but their friendship has been the foundation of the business. After locking the roller door shut, Steven mounts his own bike and cycles off, still proudly wearing his bright green polo shirt.