Opening a business? What to consider before setting your sights on a site
Published: Jul 12, 2013
Q: I want to start a cybercafe in my village or in a nearby town. What should I look for when deciding where to locate my business?
— Name withheld, Kenya
A: In business, conventional wisdom dictates that location is everything – this is the make-or-break decision that will determine whether you succeed in the long run. But I have never been one for conventional thinking, and entrepreneurs launching startups always need to improvise quick, creative solutions to the obstacles they encounter.
When we were preparing to open our first Virgin Records store in the early 1970s, my friends and I really had to think on our feet - so to speak! We knew that our business would depend on foot traffic, so we started looking for locations in central London. First we needed to narrow down to the neighborhood: We spent a morning counting the shoppers on Oxford Street, and compared it to the number of shoppers on Kensington High Street. That brief experiment confirmed that we should take the first option. We couldn’t afford to pay much in rent, so we looked for empty spaces at the unfashionable end of the street.
We managed to find some empty, unused rooms above a shoe shop, and we promised the landlord, who happened to run that shop, that we would bring in lots of customers to our record store, and reminded him that they would all have to pass his door before they went up the stairs. He agreed to the deal. While I don’t know for certain whether he managed to sell any extra pairs of Doc Martens, we were able to launch our business in a good location, and without having to pay a big check every month.
In your case, when you are searching for a location for your cybercafe, you need to think about whether your customers will be using the computers and Internet connectivity for short periods or long, and why. Are they students or professionals or members of another group? Will they need quiet, or will the hum of a busy cafe suit them better? Then you’ll need to find a location that these customers can easily get to.
Once you’ve narrowed down some possibilities, start thinking about what you’re going to do with the space. Again, don’t just follow conventional ideas in your industry, but ask yourself and, if you can, some of your potential customers, what they need and how you can help them best. When Virgin Money bought the British bank Northern Rock in early 2011, one of our first changes was to take down the glass that separated staff from customers, to make the experience more welcoming. And the new Virgin Money Lounges we opened had an even bigger impact, since they are not recognizable as branches at all: Instead, they provide a work space for our customers, where they can come in and use the free Wi-Fi, have a meeting, read the paper and have a cup of tea or a snack. There are staff members on hand, but these are very much places for those who bank with us to relax and carry out their everyday business, whether it is bank-related or not.
We’ve noticed that this approach is starting to stir things up. Last year our Virgin Money store in Norwich was being outperformed by many branches. When a Money Lounge was introduced in the same city, the branch became the second-best-performing store in all of Britain - quite a turnaround. It seems that it took some extra exposure for people in Norwich to understand what Virgin Money is all about: that it isn’t a run-of-the-mill bank.
It’s possible that you’ll have to set up shop in a space that poses some challenges that you’ll have to overcome. Back in the '70s, my friends and I were very happy with our free space on Oxford Street, but we did need to draw people’s attention to it because it was on the second floor. We handed out leaflets and found ways to create a buzz on the street below, in order to get people to go up the stairs. Businesses that can’t find ways to get people to come in don’t survive for long, so it’s best to tackle such problems head-on: Talk about them with your staff and build the solutions into your workday.
Whatever location you choose, remember that this will be the foundation for you to create a memorable experience for your customers, which may be what will keep them coming back. Next, you need to make sure that your customer service is terrific, your employees are happy, that you are giving back to your community, and all the other things that will make your business special. Location is just one piece in the jigsaw puzzle of success - make sure that you account for all the pieces.
• Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He has recently published two books: ''Screw Business as Usual’' and ''Like a Virgin.'' He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.