Author’s note: I was asked to explain the concept of entrepreneurship to a group of 5th graders. This is the fable I came up with.
After years of working as a barista at Starbucks, a young entrepreneur decided to start a business venture of his own. He set up a meeting with a group of financiers to pitch his idea.
“What do you mean, a coffee shop without a roof?” His potential investors barely stifled their laughs.
Well, he said, he imagined people sipping iced lattes under blue skies and cappuccinos in fall weather.
“What if it rains? What about when it gets dark?”
The meeting was short. The investors refused to lend the barista any money. But he was convinced that a roofless coffee shop would be something people would both enjoy and remember. As he got up to leave the cushy conference room where they were meeting, he paused.
“Actually, I don’t really need your money,” he said. He glanced out the window. “But can I use your empty parking lot?”
The investors were amused. Was this guy really going to set up a “coffee shop” in the middle of an empty parking lot right in the downtown area of the city? There was something plucky and absurd about the whole thing. Sure, they said. We want to see what will happen. It should be entertaining, at least.
That’s what the entrepreneur was hoping to hear.
“If you lend me some chairs, too, it will happen sooner than you think.”
With ten old chairs from the office, the barista-turned-roofless-coffee-shop-purveyor set up the beginnings of his business. He dusted off the chairs. Then he dragged them to the edge of the lot. As he arranged his new space, he spied an elderly couple walking by. He invited them to sit — and they did. So far, he thought, he had a minimally viable product.
So he returned to the investors.
“If you don’t mind sharing your Wi-Fi password with me, my customers can really start enjoying spending time in this beautiful urban outdoor space.”
The next morning, he hung a sign: “Have a seat. Free internet. Hot coffee coming soon!”
Soon enough, a small group of friends spotted the sign and installed themselves at the edge of the lot. The idea was starting to get traction.
“I already have prospective customers,” the entrepreneur explained to the investors. “But you know what would really make this take off? If I could fill up my pot with coffee from your cafeteria.”
The following day, the chairs were full. Dozens of other people were sitting on the ground, enjoying free Wi-Fi and $1 coffee, which the barista had gotten for free. He had a critical mass of paying customers.
He returned to the investors. “I have lots of customers now, but it’s going to start getting cold outside soon. And I want them to be comfortable.
“So I’ve decided to build a roof. Will you pay for it?”
Even from their twelfth-story offices, the investors could see the crowds below. They quickly agreed not only to fund the construction of the roof, but also a small building. The “roofless” coffee shop had become a success.
A bit bewildered, one of the investors asked, “What about your coffee shop without a roof?”
“That’s going to be the next location I open,” the barista replied.
Francesco Marconi is a Strategy Manager for The Associated Press and fellow at Columbia Journalism School. He writes about media, storytelling and innovation. He was a member of Missouri Business Alert’s first student team as a strategy director.
Follow him on Twitter @fpmarconi