Starting Impossibly Small

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   The Starting Impossibly Small Handbook is meant to help people start their own business at a micro-scale. A “single-crew workplace” can be run, as the name implies, by one crew. For a restaurant, that’s one cook and one server. For a beauty shop or barber shop, that’s one hair stylist or one barber. For a grocery, that’s a single grocer. A single-crew grocery requires only 400 square feet, the restaurant requires 300 square feet, and the beauty shop or barber shop requires less than 200 square feet. I have been documenting and blogging about tiny businesses for years, so these things are real, and America once built them all over… we’ve just forgotten how in recent times.

   A collection of tiny shops could be assembled to make an incredibly lean neighborhood center, and help solve many neighborhood problems such as “food deserts.” They could even be mobile, like food carts, so they could be installed on an empty parking lot embedded somewhere in a neighborhood (ideally near the edge, by a busy street). Being mobile allows them to be permitted as a temporary activity and served by temporary facilities, dramatically reducing start-up costs. My son is a chef, and runs two food carts in Portland (Steak Your Claim and Mumbo Gumbo) in such a setting, so what I’m proposing isn’t just theoretical, but rather are practices that have been proven to work.

   I founded the New Urban Guild in 2001; its 80-something architects and planners are dedicated to building sustainable places that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable. The Guild helps foster several initiatives, including the Katrina Cottages initiative after the hurricane, and the lessons learned there helped launch Project:SmartDwelling in early 2009, just after the Meltdown. My SmartDwelling I design was published in the Wall Street Journal, and the first SmartDwellings are now being built. So we’ve figured out how to build houses a lot smaller and smarter, but there is much work left to be done translating those lessons to businesses so that we can empower people to start their own businesses with much lower thresholds to entry.

   My Lean Urbanism colleague John Anderson founded the Small Developer/Builders group recently, and it has really taken off in large part because it isn’t just about the design and construction know-how; John backs it up with pro formas showing exactly what it takes to make each project succeed. I’ll do the same thing with the Starting Impossibly Small Handbook because seeing how the money works is what really empowers people to say “I can do that.”

   I’m sure I’ll be adding business types to the Handbook for years; the key is to get Version 1.0 on the street. And even if that includes only three or four business types, it sets the pattern so that my colleagues can contribute to it as well. I’m seeing this as an electronic book, in both iBooks and Kindle versions, just like my most recent book, to facilitate broad and free distribution.

   ~Steve Mouzon

© Mouzon Design 2014