Young, hungry and fearless

DO IT AND LEARN: Marcia Butterfield works on her online reviewing site, Neat Places.
DO IT AND LEARN: Marcia Butterfield works on her online reviewing site, Neat Places.

A new generation of Christchurch entrepreneurs are leaping into gaps left by the earthquakes. TESS McCLURE looks at the young business owners reshaping city life. 

Jasper Bryant-Greene and T'Nealle Joie were just 22 and 23 years old when they started their first bar and music venue, the Darkroom.

Before then, the extent of Bryant-Greene's hospitality experience was being asked to mix his own drink one night by a particularly busy bartender.

MY KIND OF PLACE: Liz Phelan, owner of Shop Eight, had "no business experience, and no interest in business" before starting her own.
MY KIND OF PLACE: Liz Phelan, owner of Shop Eight, had "no business experience, and no interest in business" before starting her own.

Until he owned his own, he says, "that was the only time I'd been behind a bar in my life".

Since then, the pair have opened two of Christchurch's most popular night-time hotspots - the often-packed music venue Darkroom, and quieter whisky bar, The Last Word.

Bryant-Greene and Joie are part of a new wave of young entrepreneurs making their mark on Christchurch's business scene.

DIY: T'Nealle Joie, 23, co-owner of the Darkroom and The Last Word.
DIY: T'Nealle Joie, 23, co-owner of the Darkroom and The Last Word.

Armed with only an idea, a DIY attitude and no previous business experience, they are a new and different breed from the big developers who dominated ownership of Christchurch's nightlife through projects like Sol Square and The Strip.

Bryant-Greene was a computer programmer and Joie a musician when the February 2011 earthquake hit. In the months following, they noticed a dearth of music venues in the city.

"With all the venues being closed, there just weren't any gigs. So we wanted to solve that problem, basically."

The pair plunged their savings into leasing a building on St Asaph St, and opened the Darkroom bar and venue in October 2011.

Bryant-Greene laughs remembering their early days.

"On the nights that there wasn't a gig on we might sit in there all night, and nobody would come in."

It's a hard picture to imagine now. Darkroom has had shows booked every night for over a year, and is often packed to capacity.

Employing seven additional staff, they make up to 3000 drinks over busy Friday and Saturdays.

A year later, the pair saw the need for a quieter, more genteel partner to Darkroom.

They created The Last Word, a specialist lounge bar on New Regent St. The place stocks more than 150 whiskies, and has proved popular even on a street plagued by quake repairs and lack of foot traffic.

Asked whether there is a secret to their success, Bryant-Greene shrugs.

"Both the businesses are based around problems we perceived, that we felt we could solve - and then just hoping that other people will be interested in the same thing," he says.

As twenty-somethings whose target market is their peer group, they have an innate sense of what will sell, and have banked on the premise that what appeals to them will appeal to others.

University of Canterbury's Dr Rachel Wright heads up the institution's first entrepreneurship incubator programme, which aims to develop start-up potential among students.

She says young entrepreneurs' closeness to their target markets is "absolutely key" to their success.

"These guys are astute enough that they come at a problem they've observed personally. That's why they take off. They bring a different perspective - they understand what their peers want."

Shop Eight is Liz Phelan's first foray into the cafe business.

Returning to Christchurch after studying in Melbourne, the recent English literature graduate says, "There weren't really any social venues that I felt connected to, that I wanted to return to and patronise. So I did it [the cafe] for myself, with the hope it might attract some like-minded types."

The Last Word, Darkroom and Shop Eight do no traditional advertising, and rely on word of mouth. Having a loyal customer base who buy in to their vision is vital to their survival.

Like Bryant-Greene, Phelan had says she had "no business experience, and no real interest in business," before opening her own.

After originally struggling to find investors for a larger wine bar, she scaled back her plans, borrowed $15,000 from family and got started.

Shop Eight opened in April 2013, and has done a steady trade since. Now employing three staff, Phelan plans to expand the business in January, installing a larger kitchen and applying for an alcohol licence.

Starting young usually means facing the challenge of startup costs. None of the entrepreneurs interviewed had access to bank loans, and without a track record in the industry, investors can be difficult to convince.

Wright says one of the biggest obstacles to young entrepreneurs is startup cash.

"The Government is really good at providing funding for businesses of a certain size, but there's really a lack of funds for supporting students or young entrepreneurs at a very early stage," she says.

To keep costs down, Bryant-Greene and Joie did the bulk of painting, decorating and building work themselves.

They see the DIY method as an advantage, which "gives you a very thorough understanding of everything involved in your business".

For Marcia Butterfield, now 28, business projects are a chance to experiment and gain skills.

"You don't really gain practical skills at university, so I've just learnt through experience," she says.

"I like to do things that I'll learn from - it's really about doing things that I haven't done before."

Butterfield owns Neat Places, an online events and reviewing site that has run for the last three years, expanding from Christchurch to cover Wellington and Dunedin.

The site received backing from Creative NZ and the Christchurch City Council. It is monetised through advertising and by allowing businesses seeking a higher profile to pay for an online video or a place in the printed pocket guide.

So far, Neat Places has profiled 342 restaurants, bars, cafes, shops and galleries, and Marcia now employs five contractors to create content for the site.

In creating a business plan, she says, "I think of what I'd like to see. I want to live in a city that people find desirable to live and visit."

She's run a variety of successful business "experiments," including That Mexican Guy food truck and a marketing consultancy contracted for clients as large as Rangi Ruru Girls' school and Cera's Avon River Precinct.

Successful young projects in the city, she says, are characterised by "low risk, low startup costs. Just run with it, do it and learn from it."

University of Canterbury marketing expert Sussie Morrish said post-quake Christchurch was an ideal city for young people to trial their ideas.

"Christchurch at present is like a semi-blank canvas for aspiring and established entrepreneurs. Where many will see devastation and feel discouraged, a person with an entrepreneurial mindset discovers opportunities," she said.

Since the earthquakes, Bryant-Greene says, more young people are prepared to step up and give business a try.

"People seem to perceive fewer reasons why they shouldn't do things," he says, "which is excellent, because what's the worst that can happen? I mean there's obviously risk. But at the end of the day, the worst case scenario is that it just doesn't work and then you go do something else."

Wright believes this youthful optimism is often a key strength for startups.

"Business is really hard. It's gruelling and you never know what's around the corner. But these guys, being young, just take that in their stride. They respond really well to failure. They're much more adaptable."

In some ways, Wright says, inexperience can work in their favour. "The great thing about them is that they're a bit naive. They don't know what they're getting themselves into, so they think anything's possible."