Vancity Entrepreneurs: The Chinatown Experiment

Dec 19 2017, 6:27 am

Cultivating entrepreneurship is essential to a city’s economic development and can also foster world wide recognition – the Silicon Valley is the flagship example of this. On a less extreme scale, you have Microsoft from Seattle, Spotify from Sweden, and Hootsuite from Vancouver – it puts you on the map. We’ve featured a lot of tech startups that come out of local accelerator (i.e an organization that helps accelerate startups development), GrowLab. This week, we feature a much newer accelerator to the city that takes a different angle in supporting low tech brick and mortar businesses – they call it, The Chinatown Experiment. 

1. Who are you? Tell us about your business/core idea and how it got started.

My name is Devon and I’ve started a facility down in Chinatown appropriately named The Chinatown Experiment. It’s a space for entrepreneurs to test run their ideas in a low cost / low risk environment. This manifests itself in the shape of retail pop ups, micro tradeshows and creative events. We are located at 434 Columbia St.

Its inception happened in two steps. I had dreamed of running a contracting company that used more efficient processes and technologies in renovations. As things got running, there just never was enough time to try out new things and running a full time business in its first year the risks were just too high to try to go against the grain. So I came up with the idea of renovating a storefront as a construction experiment and using the information and the final product as something small to medium contractors could learn from. Then on a trip to Portland, my friends and I kept visiting these eclectic interesting businesses and I would always hear the phrase “This wouldn’t ever work in Vancouver.”  To which my response was “Why not?” And the answer invariably was, despite the high level of creative people in Vancouver, the costs and red tape are massive barriers to entry. So The Chinatown Experiment’s hypothesis was born: If you provide a low risk environment for ideas to be tested and grown we will be able to expand the diversity of small business in Vancouver and B.C. So regardless of the stage of a business idea, we can help design a pop up event to test it out. 

2. A lot of people reference GrowLab or world famous Y-combinator when they hear about accelerators. What can you tell them about The Chinatown Experiment that makes you different, but also, draws on some similar characteristics?

There are two key differences between common business incubators and us. First, they are primarily for tech companies and second they focus on product creation and getting financing. The type of businesses we cater to are low tech, brick and mortar types. They are artisan products and lifestyle businesses. We provide the logistics and help do the market research so the only thing they need to work on is creating the best possible version of their product/business. We are also open to businesses in any stage.

3. What sorts of startups have gone through your doors and how have they performed afterwards? Feel free to talk about some of the current startups you have and how other Vancouver startups can apply to The Chinatown Experiment.

We are only in our first month of operation. So our results are still pending. The entire process is going organically and in stages. Like the businesses we cater to we are new and are learning as we go along to refine the space and our processes. So far we are on experiment 2. Our first was collaboration between ice cream company Sunday Morning Ice Cream, Panoramic Coffee Roasters and Ken Tsui to put together a one night pop up café with a twin peaks theme. It was called The Black Lodge Diner and was a huge success, selling out in two hours. Currently we have a retail pop up called Mutts and Co: Variety Store running until Oct 14. It is being presented by Toronto designers Muttonhead. You can keep track of upcoming events and experiments on our Facebook group. 

4. What kind of challenges has your team had to face and how have you mitigated them?

We are going through the same challenges our client’s go through. High costs, limited access to cash and city hall red tape. We are mitigating it through collaborating with a great business community growing out of the empty spaces in Chinatown. Our neighbours, men retail store The Shop Vancouver and Duchesse Vintage and Such, as well as Positive Negative Art Gallery all work together to share resources, give each other a helping hand and promote each other. The Chinatown Experiment would not be able to exist if the neighbourhood wasn’t as supportive.

5. How does this improve the city of Vancouver? What is the real world problem you’re solving?

It gives the creative class a chance to give it a go in the business in one of the world’s most expensive cities. It provides the rest of Vancouver with a chance to enjoy creative events and a unique business community that varies from what the city is used to. It’s a real world problem that with the cost of living and rental rates so high that we risk being a mono-culture of franchises and dime a dozen businesses.

6. What’s your advice for current or future entrepreneurs?

Try it. You don’t need to plan for years, a business degree or a ton of capital. All you need is to take a step, try an idea out and then watch as your enthusiasm moves you forward.

It’s definitely refreshing to feature a startup not involved in the tech world as there is the common misconception that entrepreneurship  is only synonymous with tech companies. It’s also a bonus to feature such a fresh organization that is making an active effort to help the city’s entrepreneurs. Another great new accelerator resides at UBC with the recently formed organization called  [email protected] (Entrepreneurship at UBC) which has a $10 million seed fund available to UBC students and recent alumni. Expect entrepreneurship to continue to surge in Vancouver with organizations like these helping people experiment with their entrepreneurial spirit.

You can follow The Chinatown Experiment on Facebook.

Stay in touch @pauldavidescu

*Vancity Entrepreneurs is a weekly feature on the city’s most notable entrepreneurs or startups that are making Vancouver a better place. If you think your venture deserves to be on the series, send [email protected] an email explaining why*