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The Monocle Guide To Good Business, An Antidote To Empty Startup Culture

The folks behind Monocle have some ideas for entrepreneurs looking to bring a sense of gravitas and culture to their businesses.

Here’s a radical premise for a business book: “Startup” is an empty word. “Most business books seem to have a ‘get rich quick’ theme,” says Andrew Tuck, cofounding editor, with Tyler Brûlé, of global magazine Monocle and editor of the new book, The Monocle Guide to Good Business. “Or, they have some slightly crazy model for you to follow that will supposedly deliver success in seconds.”

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Entrepreneurial success seen through the Monocle lens looks different: It’s slower-growing, more painstaking, less giddily affluent. The businesses profiled sell tangible products–ceramics, goat cheese–and are run by grown-ups versus the delayed adolescents one associates with Silicon Valley. “Today there are numerous people who launch their own companies in full knowledge they could have a bigger salary in the corporate world,” Tuck continues. “But they choose to run a vineyard, a coffee shop, or a magazine because they want to make something they believe in.” This book is for them.


The Monocle recipe calls for ingredients like “petiteness” (not getting too big, too fast) and “social terroir” (rooting your business in place and community, and staying responsive to the needs of that community). While the book profiles many camera-ready businesses, it also shows how to make hipster-ish concerns financially viable. Sydney-based bookstore Title, for instance, thrives because it’s well-sited as a social destination, with rigorously curated shelves and a strong rapport between owner and clientele.

Andrew Tuck

Other themes running through the book: Pitch your product upmarket, where higher margins prevail; don’t sell products, curate an experience; cater to consumer tastes you understand well; cross-pollinate ideas across industries; and tilt your business model as necessary (a gelato “university” in a high-rent locale is more financially sustainable than a simple gelato shop).

An outgrowth of last year’s book The Monocle Guide to Better Living, this volume serves up business writ visual in a magazine-style format of essays and illustrated shorts, pitched to serious entrepreneurs as well as escapists daydreaming in cubicles.

Fast Company talked with Tuck via email about what the book can teach would-be entrepreneurs, and how Monocle’s own business success informs those lessons.

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You’ve developed a distinctive brand and a pioneering business model–from physical shops to branded lifestyle products–to overcome a challenging market for your core product, print media. How can non-media companies make sure they’re unique enough to stand out?

Monocle has flourished because it has known when to be innovative and when to be a little slow and old-school. For example, we’ve always believed in having journalists on the ground in dedicated bureaus–we just opened a bureau in Istanbul. This belief in traditional journalism and the power of print has, ironically, made us look fresh.

So yes, if you have a great new idea you may be able to steal a march on everyone else, but most new businesses are actually repeating–but refining–old ideas. There is always room for a new café done better or a magazine that does its own thing. The book even looks at how you can revive a redundant brand if you have the right skills.

How do you generate that kind of strong brand personality?

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When Monocle first launched some people were a bit unsure: Could you report on everything from politics to design in the same pages? A year later…the same people would tell you that they now loved the magazine and liked all the changes we had made. But we hadn’t changed–they had. A good brand is built through repetition and you have to have the confidence to keep repeating what you do best until you get the breakthrough. The other important thing is to choose steady progress over what may seem like easy wins. They are usually hollow.

Every entrepreneur faces moments–even long stretches–where doubt, speed, and distractibility predominate. Any advice on weathering these periods?

We have an illustrated guide that takes you on a 50-step journey from fresh idea to success. It’s done with some humor but there are key stages for the troubled entrepreneur…Canvass opinions, do your research, check the market, but in the end you’ll only make it if you know what your passion is for, and you stick with it. Sometimes people won’t understand what you are trying to achieve at first. But it’s only through confident repetition that powerful brands are built.

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How should the process of shaping a strong brand work?

We talk to owners about how they run their companies and the creative process. There’s Andrea Illy who runs Illy coffee, Christian Struck at [household appliance-maker] Grundig, and Rosa Lladró at the Spanish porcelain makers, among others. What comes across is that each person has learned to be open to the input of their team…but, in the end, they are the keeper of the flame. They are brave enough to make the big decisions. Perhaps the key conclusion is to innovate but to find the pace that matches your brand.

Concentration is a rare commodity; any thoughts on maintaining focus in an ADHD-ish world?

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When you feel that you’re just responding to the next urgent request all the time and need some bigger thoughts, get out of your office, turn off that phone, be distracted by something bigger than the task at hand. To quote [an essay by Tuck in the book]: “We need some places, some escapist spots, where we can be not at home with the humdrummery and not at work with the brain set on frenetic.” We even tell you where to go. (Editorial spoiler: go to museums.)


You profile many less-than-usual businesses and managers–for instance, a captain of a Finnish icebreaker ship. Why?

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The Finnish icebreaker captain…has to manage a team in conditions harsher than your average entrepreneur will ever do–and he does it with calmness, authority, and bravery.

(We also) include entrepreneurial concerns that have grown big doing gritty work, [like] JCDecaux. This family-run business operates in 60 countries, employs 12,000 people, and was started in 1964 by Jean-Claude Decaux. He created an enterprise that…is still very much a family business–and all the better for it. Their business model is simple: They give cities the [toilets], benches, bus shelters they need, often designed just for that city, and they then make money from the advertising that appears on [those structures]. They make good money, but they also have a genuine passion for cities.

You take aim at business trends you consider misguided, like “hot desking.” What is that, and why is it ineffective?

Hot desking, the idea that you just sit wherever’s free when you get to work, is nearly always designed by managers trying to cut costs. It almost never has the interests of people who work in offices at its heart. I hope our book puts you at the top of the chain, in charge of your own company, able to decide how you want to be treated–and take care of other people. Other terrible ideas? Companies with no lobbies, bean bags in place of chairs, and staff who turn up to meetings lugging flasks of water as though there’s a drought on.

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About the author

I write about design and culture for Slate, Business Week, The Believer, Fast Company, GOOD, I.D. - oh, I'll stop.

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