Never worked on a building project before? Never run a food outlet before? Got little or no working capital for a deposit or set-up costs?
SAIF BONAR ticked all the wrong boxes when he decided six months ago to try to start a business in central Croydon. Now, with opening day at Matthews Yard just weeks away, he recounts the trials and tribulations of his post-riots business start-up
On August 7, 2011 I was, like most who live in Croydon, an ordinary resident who took little interest in the area in which I lived and worked.
The evening of August 8 was a turning point for me.
The following day, I set about trying to use my skills and expertise to help bring about positive change in the borough. Initially, I devised the CR0Tech initiative, a drive to position Croydon as a tech centre for south London.
One of the first objectives was to get a physical base up and running. The CR0Tech concept is altruistic and not the most viable project to run as a for-profit business. With very little financial resources, I decided it would be hard to create something sustainable on a shoestring.
I realised that a low-cost, flexible workspace for small digital businesses, creatives and start-ups could serve as a generator of revenue while also helping CR0Tech deliver on some of its objectives. I began discussions with potential partners and investors. I also started looking at potential properties in the centre of Croydon.
The mid-town area was preferred, due to the ease of access from East and West Croydon stations. After viewing several premises owned by Delancey it quickly became clear that there was little scope for an upstart like me to negotiate a good deal with no initial financial outlay and with no deposit. Landlords with big portfolios don’t work with that degree of flexibility.
Down, but not out, I happened upon the Pumping Station and Exchange Square. I instantly saw the potential and began making enquiries into the retail premises around the square. I discovered the site was mired in problems because the developers had gone bust, leaving the Bank of Ireland in control, who in turn had their own financial woes. Again, it was apparent that the property would not come cheap, and certainly not without a deposit.
At this point I was becoming more desperate to push forward plans and began casting a wider net which included making enquiries from owners of various properties in Addiscombe. Far from ideal for the central digital hub I had envisaged.
Then, by fluke, while I was moaning to a contact about the woes of finding suitable property and flexible landlords, I was shown the basement of the Folly’s End Trust building on Surrey Street.
While many would have run a mile confronted with a mountain of rubble and years worth of junk piled higher than head height, I saw the potential of the premises. It was the right size, had the right feel, too, and was in an almost ideal location. It had planning consent for restaurant use, which meant I could subsidise the workspace with revenues from a cafe and it had enough space and flexibility to toy with other ideas.
With an entrance being set back from Surrey Street, the rent was also in a ball park in which I felt I could play. After several open and honest meetings with representatives of the Trust and some negotiations, an Agreement in Principle was reached just before Christmas and I eagerly set to work clearing the space and making preparations for work to commence in the new year.
Taking over 300 sq m of disused basement and turning it into a high-end coffee shop with facilities targeted at micro-businesses and freelancers was never going to be easy. The landlord accepted that with a shoestring budget and the current state of the premises, taking a large deposit up-front would be a deal-breaker given the shoestring budget I was working with.
From January, work on the refurb began in earnest. To keep costs down, I did most of the work that month alone and only part-time, as there was still no formal lease and I was still a little sceptical. By February, having had more discussions with the landlords and becoming more comfortable with the situation, I drafted in some help in the form of a young, multi-skilled plasterer who can also build walls, tile floors, paint and decorate.
As the pace of work accelerated, I found myself working seven days a week up to 12 hours a day on-site, followed by home-based research to identify the best value suppliers of building materials. On top of that, I was also trying to keep my existing business going, keeping my clients happy. There really was never enough hours in the day.
We are now nearing the end of the build, and while we still haven’t signed the lease, we have seen a draft version of it and that side of things is almost over the line. I am pleased I pushed ahead and had faith in the landlord to deliver on the lease, otherwise we would be months further back and looking at a summer opening.
Now, fingers crossed, we seem set for the official opening on April 21. But not before further instalments of this account of setting up a business in Croydon.
- 4 Days in August: Steve O’Connell’s lasting shame? (insidecroydon.com)
- Matthews Yard offers thousands in discounts ahead of opening (insidecroydon.com)
- Dear Prime Minister: this is what Croydon really needs (insidecroydon.com)
- Blurred vision leaves Croydon with empty concrete canyons (insidecroydon.com)