As I write (or more correctly type) this article, I’m sitting at the place that arguably captures the essence of Wellington’s café scene most authentically – Midnight Espresso. My flat white, crafted from the fine beans of Havana Coffee Roasters, has gotten me thinking about this place, and the business model it demonstrates.

Created by two entrepreneurial souls well over thirty years ago, Midnight, as the locals know it, is and always has been the essence of Café cool. Midnight happened because, frankly, its founders were unlikely to find real jobs and were railing against the conservative, risk-averse and toe-the-line ethos of the day. Creative souls, and aware that hospitality in New Zealand at that time was far more conservative than elsewhere, they found a site and got creating.

But back to Midnight itself. Here there’s no real thought of good service, elegant surroundings or opulence. Midnight, unchanged since its inception, boasts staff who are well aware that they are far cooler than the vast majority of their clientele. Furniture and fittings which were bought from an auction of disused school items, and an ambience that exudes Uber-grunge. It is the quintessence of authenticity and, as such, is well protected from the vagaries of fashion. It’s weird, but its weirdness is what makes it work.

Walking up Cuba Street, itself the epitome of Wellington grunge, one is met by a changing landscape. Where once strip joints and shady retail outlets abounded, today fine dining restaurants, fashion boutiques and – gasp – high street retail chains are to be found. Midnight may be the same as it always was, but its neighbourhood has changed immeasurably. The street has gone from edgy, nonconformist and weird to calculated and cool. Great for the short term but who knows for the long.

And yet, as all around it has changed, Midnight endures. It’s something worth thinking about , especially as we potentially enter a time of great economic change where, for the first time in a generation, we see legitimate cracking in the economic models. It would pay us well to observe institutions that have themselves remained unchanged through changeable times to get a sense of what we’ll need going forward.

You see, over the past twenty years, we have moved to a model where the generally accepted approach to starting a business is to throw a few million dollars at branding consultants, marketing execs, packaging consultants and social media mavens. That money is often provided from external investors looking to find a good “pump and dump” opportunity to further grow their wealth. What is created may very well be completely “on message” for the fashions of the here and now, but also completely misses the mark when it comes to authenticity and longer-term context. It’s short term gains at the expense of creating something with anything resembling permanence.

That approach would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. Back then, businesses like Midnight and my own, Cactus Outdoor were built on the cheap, utilizing the labour of friends and family. They were created not with a view to grow and sell, but rather to simply produce a product that the founders and their buddies needed and wanted. To put it another way, instead of seeing business growth as their raisan d’etre, their mission was simply to give people the best coffee (or backpack and workwear) experience available.

Another good example of weird and edgy is AJ Hackett. Founded by a couple of young (at the time) larrikins who had a weird fascination with obscure and dangerous sports and pastimes, Hackett got its start to widespread popularity through unusual means. Instead of going to an advertising company and buying some TV or newspaper ads, AJ decided to sneakily climb the Eiffel Tower under the cover of darkness and, at first light, jump off it with bungy attached. The ensuing controversy (cue arrests and coverage all across the world) paid far greater dividends than any marketing campaign thought up by agency creatives.

Our current age is one of maximum inauthenticity where brands, created out of thin air with little or no substance, rise to meteoric success seemingly overnight. But such rocket-like growth doesn’t build strength and resilience. Rather it encourages short-termism, mediocrity and a boring consistency. And when things get rough, people turn away from manufactured brands, to one which have the strength and solidity to maintain their own particular weirdness over time.

Sure I could go to any number of bland and boring franchised cafes for my coffee. But there’s a reason that Midnight has been a Wellington mainstay all that time. As business leaders, we should think about that and the risks of losing the weird.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. Frankly, he’s a little bit weird himself.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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