will_nicholsen-wyller kafeI have worked in the restaurant trade for a long time, either owning my own pub or restaurant, or working as a chef.  When the IntoFood sustainability tool first saw the light of day, I was half-way through a masters degree in Green Economy and looking for a research thesis topic.  I was also running a ski-café at Oslo Vinterpark as part of social enterprise Kompass & Co, where part of our focus was food sustainability.  I did some initial research into the environmental impact of different types of food, and saw how our menu could be both sustainable and profitable.

Talk about it in real terms

The idea was to be able to tell people in real terms why our food was a good choice, and what I was really interested in was “how can you measure this?”.  If you can measure something, you can talk about it in real terms.  I didn’t have any funding or any real business model in mind, but I knew that in our café we were managing to serve food that had a low impact on the environment and that we were making a profit.  If we could do this, then so could other food service businesses, and if I could work out how to help them do that, then I had a viable service or product. 

And this nicely settled the question about what my research thesis would be.  I would do the research, measure the impact from our café, and use these results to persuade others to let me do the same in other restaurants and cafes.  The plan was that this would give me some case studies for my research thesis, and at the same time I would find out how to do this properly.  Then I might be able to get some funding to develop a commercial service and product that I could apply to the market place. 

Start with babysteps

I didn’t start with an office space, and I still work 70% from home – desk, laptop, printer, coffee machine.  I guess that makes it an office in reality, but it’s cost free and allows me to work flexibly, something that I think you need when you are starting out.  I often work on a Sunday, or in the evenings, which is much more manageable when you have a free “office space”.  I didn’t have any employees, and I still don’t.  When you are trying to do something new, it is pretty hard to 1) Have enough cashflow to pay salaries and 2) Know exactly what kind of person you need, for exactly what kind of work. Even now I work in partnerships on different projects rather than employing people, although this may be changing in the next year or so as I develop a larger, more consistent, client base.  I did get some funding, but only after I had done the first pilot project.  To start with, money came from working long hours in other jobs, and it still does from time to time.  I think you need to accept that you are going to have to self-finance a lot of the early work in something new and innovative.  Being able to work as a chef in restaurants, whilst I develop the business, has probably made the difference for me – it allows me to maintain a personal salary of some sort, even though business income can be unpredictable when you first start. 

The importent things

I imagine every business starts in a different way, but these are the things that I think are important:

  1. Try to do your first project on a tiny budget.  Even if you think you know all the answers, you probably don’t.  But you will know a lot more by the end of the first project.  If you self-finance this, then you don’t have to answer to anyone if things do not go to plan.
  2. Go light on overheads.  If you don’t need an office space, don’t pay for one.
  3. Apply for funding when you have something to show people.  This is why your first project should be self-financed if possible – after that you will really know what you need funding for.  You probably don’t know this from day one.
  4. Have a back-up income to pay your rent and put food on the table.  It can be hard work, but its worth it.
  5. Collaborate with people, and make sure that your goals are at least partially aligned.  You can’t do everything yourself, and you maybe can’t afford employees, so collaborations are a good lower risk alternative.