A COLLECTION OF STORIES BY LUKE TAGG
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SMOKE: How Not To Start A New Business

Originally published: 29 July 2005

They weren't lying when they said it was hard starting your own business - I can confirm that running my own business has been the toughest thing I've ever had to do.

Way tougher even than that thing about the thing in Pueblo del Diablo back in '87, when I got involved with Jesus "Tickles" Moreno and the unfortunate Case Of The Missing Knuckles.

But where were we? Ah yes - entrepreneurs.

I never in all my life imagined I'd ever run my own business - I hated businessmen as a kid and vowed never to don a suit and tie. I also grew my hair long and refused to shave my legs - until the day I had to put on a suit and tie and lose the hair and shave my legs, all in the name of making a buck and living a few more days.

Don't get literal on me now - the first person to accuse me of ever shaving my legs is the first cyclist who dies with a spoke through his heart. I have never - ever - shaved my legs, and I don't for one moment believe it helps the aerodynamic properties of a leg moving through air.

Why can't you just cycle with hairy legs? What's next - nylon passions? Garter belts? Purchasing used Japanese underwear and asphyxiating yourself to death with it in your closet?

Hmpf. Cyclists. They're the dangerous ones, man.

Back to business - I didn't have the first clue how to run a business and I did no reading on the subject. Tashi and I just plunged right in to see what would/could happen, without knowing where it would take us, and we've surfed the wave ever since.

Our site is part of a tiny percentage of businesses that make it past the magical two-year mark - we've passed the three-year mark now and as you can see we're not going anywhere in a hurry.

I can speculate any number of reasons why we have stayed afloat for so long, particularly in such a moneyless environment as the Internet and in a country which is still in the dark ages as far as connectivity is concerned, but one big factor is that we've spent a lot of time on attention to detail.

We've never had a lot of resources - we had no start-up capital, no investors, no venture capitalists, no bank loans and only two employees (three if you count TBD), which means we've had to make what we've got count.

The fact that you - and at least five thousand other unique visitors today alone - are sitting there reading this means that to a certain extent our attention to detail has payed off.

We've been honest, up front and transparent about our strengths and weaknesses, and I believe we have managed to connect with our readers in a way many other big sites cannot.

It's because we love this business and we respect the people who visit it every day, and believe me when I tell you that our only aim is to entertain people to the max and to make their experience of TT as pleasant and challenging as possible.

Gosh - just reading that makes me want to have sex with me. I'm thinking a bottle of Jack, a cap of something hallucinogenic and some extended nipple-work, segueing into a handcuffs interlude and resolving nicely into some quality one-on-one hand massages and the like. The usual.

The point I'm trying to make is not how clever we've been, but rather how bog standard we've been. Absolute minimum effort from us.

I believe that it is entirely possible for new businesses to act honestly and to have the well-being of their customers at hand - it is a minimum requirement.

I can't tolerate it when I come across new businesses that are just plain shoddy, with no thought for anything other than how to squeeze their next buck out of the next stupid Pig.

I decided to have lunch today. Nothing extraordinary about that for most folks, but when you consider that the last time I had lunch was - coincidentally - at round about the time that Harvey "Two-Spines" Chavez was looking for his knuckles, perhaps you appreciate that it was a momentous occasion for me.

I walked down the road with wallet in hand and was going to go to Pick 'n Pay when I remembered Tashi had told me they were Pigs.

I couldn't remember whether I was allowed to go to Pick 'n Pay or not, and deciding discretion was the better part of valour I stood indecisively in the island in the middle of the road for a few minutes, scanning my options, and eventually decided to Go Local and support a new deli that opened a few months ago at the bottom of our road instead.

See, Raymond? The power of the media, boet. Give your workers their bladdy pittance and go back to whatever disgustingly wealthy old tarts like you get up to on days such as these, and let me get back to Pickers, quickers.

Think about it Ray. You don't want me hating you, man.

I don't know what the name of the deli was but it was seriously halaal - I walked into the tiny, cramped room and walked two steps to get to the counter, and standing there I browsed the boards above to see what they had on offer.

There were rotis and curries and just about everything came with halaal polony, and I'll tell you this much - I don't eat polony, man. Nor strange sausage - I was tempted to get a boerie roll but I never trust boerewors until I know where it's been. And no - that's your filthy imagination, not mine.

So I settled on a toasted cheese sandwich instead, and a medium chips.

I was the only customer in the place and there were two employees there, and it still took them about 20 minutes to make my order. They both disappeared into a dingy back room that had a torn, see-through veil hanging up to partially cover it and I could make out their dark figures in the gloom beyond, moving around in a tiny space.

I turned to survey the small room I was in. On the walls were a litany of quotes from the Q'uran, embroidered quite beautifully in Arabic on expensive cloth.

But the walls they were on were dirty and clearly hadn't been painted since the new owners moved in, and there were big cracks and chipped fascia boards and a sickly yellowish colour which pervaded the room, and it wasn't a light yellow - it was very dark.

There was one tiny plastic table in the middle of the room and two plastic chairs on either side of it. Outside there was another plastic table and four plastic chairs.

The floor was old linoleum which was faded and scuffed from years of shoes walking over it. The counter top was cracked and looked a little greasy.

There were two white shelves behind the counter, one of which contained a row of Cadbury chocolate bars - all the same. They clearly didn't have a huge inventory, but I didn't mind - when we started out with TT we didn't either. We just had one or two things to offer, and we built on that.

As time wore on I started getting impatient, and that's when the doubts started creeping in. I mean - surely they couldn't duff up a cheese sandwich and some chips? It's possibly the most basic of all orders.


Eventually the dude came out of his dank lair with a scowl on his face. He didn't say a word to me but packed up my sandwich in a plastic packet and put it on top of the styrofoam container which had my chips. He asked if I wanted any sauces on my chips and I said that just vinegar would suffice.

But he didn't have vinegar (he muttered something about being out of stock), so I told him not to worry. I left my money on the counter and walked out, and although he mumbled something to himself I couldn't hear what it was.

When I got home I was pleasantly surprised to discover quite a few chips, and they seemed decent enough. But when I opened up my sandwich packet I found another wrapped parcel, and started unwrapping that. It was like one of those Babushka dolls, dude, or Pass The Parcel - the wrapping never ended. Each time I unwrapped another layer there was another waiting for me.

I burrowed my way down to a tiny square in the centre of it all and when I finally unveiled the trophy - with my table awash with discarded wrapping - I discovered it was two paper-thin slices of toast stuck together by a sickly orange substance, and while I understand there is some pretension in the cutthroat world of cheese manufacturing this just couldn't be called cheese.

I took an experimental bite and it tasted like one of those processed cheese slices you get in packs of 10 at Ray's Place, and the toast was limp and cold with the middle burned and the edges soggy. It was quite possibly the worst excuse for a toasted sandwich I have ever come across.

The chips were alright but one or two of them still had black bits in them (the bits you normally cut out of the potato before you cook it), and without vinegar they held no genuine appeal for me.

The whole experience was rubbish, and I can confidently predict that the deli won't last another year.

I hope it doesn't. That isn't very supportive of a fellow small business owner, but I can't abide it when a new business starts up and they scrimp and fudge from the outset. I don't believe such businesses deserve to succeed and I scream with laughter to myself when I see them fail. Good.

A little bit of hard work and some integrity will sort them out smart quick - they're in a prime position and they could get quite a following if they produce quality food.

Unfortunately they've already done the maths for themselves and worked out that you make more money if you use cheaper ingredients and skimp on them. It's a typical South African new business mindset and it's the reason so many businesses fail.

Small business will continue to struggle in South Africa until entrepreneurs recognise that quality mixed with affordability is a guaranteed recipe for success, and I for one will not support anyone who doesn't have that ethos.

If you can't make a decent cheese sandwich you have no business making it.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

Look at me now - all the way from Uitenhage to the bright lights of the big internet.

Find out more using the handy links provided.



Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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