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Courier produces useful, inspiring content for modern entrepreneurs. Our Friday newsletter features stories on working better and living smarter.
Friday 21st August

How can you make a video meeting... fun? Top tips below. Plus, why specialists might be a dying breed, what happens when your top product has ethical issues, boosting diversity in the kitchen, and how retailers are introducing anxiety-free shopping. Enjoy.

‘Not long ago, wearing real fur was a signal of wealth and status,’ says brand strategist and Courier contributor Ana Andjelic. ‘Now, it’s a signal of ignorance. In contrast, fake fur is inexpensive, but it displays status lent by knowledge about the climate crisis and the importance of sustainability.’ Ana calls what consumers value and how they distinguish themselves from others the ‘modern aspiration economy’ – and she’s now written a whole book on the subject.

On our podcast this week, we talk about how brands can take advantage of ‘the business of aspiration’ and Ana shares practical tips for how brands can survive the tough new economy. One tip is for businesses to be – wait for it – less efficient:

‘The previous economy was driven by the pressure of efficiency,’ she says. ‘We were all about optimisation, maximisation. We wanted to maximise our productivity, maximise our leisure time, maximise our lifestyle. Everything was, “How can I live a more efficient life?” And companies operated according to the same efficiency principles. You don't want to have a lot of money sitting on your balance sheet. You don't want to have a lot of slack and buffers. The capacity of everything was at 100%. And that has proven to be unbelievably fragile. So, my advice for business owners is to allow for slack and allow for less efficiency – because if you have less efficiency, then you have more room to be nimble, pivot and survive at the end of the day – to adjust for unpredictable situations.’

It's counterintuitive, she concedes, but one practical example is to hire generalists, not specialists. Specialists, while seemingly more efficient, might find it difficult to adapt to quickly changing situations – a crisis, recession, pandemic – whereas generalists will be able to pitch in across different areas of the company when things go wrong. The question to ask a prospective team member, Ana says, becomes: '"Can this person help this other person do their job better?" Don't worry how they're going to do it. Are they a copywriter or an art director? Forget about that. If they can help another person on your team do their job better and add value to the company overall, just hire them.’ Listen to the chat here.

Wine had a good lockdown, largely thanks to the ingenuity of independent businesses. Many were quick to launch doorstep delivery services – and one of the most in-demand ranges was Italian Calcarius. Natural winemaker Valentina Passalacqua’s good-looking, low-ABV bottles riff on the periodic table and come at a tempting price point: a litre is less than £25. The brand dominated Instagram during spring and early summer, often accompanied by the hashtag #lockdownjuice.

Then, in July, Valentina’s wealthy agriculturalist father, Settimio Passalacqua, was arrested and charged with caporalato: the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable workers, often migrants from eastern Europe and Africa. Valentina, whose business is separate, was quick to condemn and distance herself from her father’s affairs – but with questions persisting around her knowledge of and involvement in them, Calcarius’ retailers found themselves at a crossroads.

‘It was a huge product for us and we’d just bought loads of it,’ says Brodie Meah of Top Cuvée, a Highbury restaurant and wine bar that pivoted to delivery. After researching the situation, Top Cuvée issued a statement saying it ‘didn't want to list a product that was potentially made under illegal working conditions’, and continues not to offer it for sale. Speaking out in this way wasn’t about ‘cancelling’ Passalacqua, Brodie emphasises. ‘It’s so popular, our customers would have been confused. Normally we’d just have taken it off the shelves and got on with it.’

Other retailers have made different decisions, and Calcarius’ UK wholesaler, Les Caves de Pyrene, issued a statement in support of Valentina Passalacqua. ‘Our position isn’t a criticism of [the wholesaler] in any way, and we still have a great working relationship with them,’ stresses Brodie.

Whatever the eventual outcome of the Italian criminal proceedings, the situation has raised uncomfortable questions about what Brodie calls the demand-driven ‘industrial revolution in natural wine’. ‘It’s been an open secret that Calcarius was doing a little more volume than might be considered “natural”, but it is working in a biodynamic way,’ he says. ‘And people are disappointed when they can’t get wines due to limited production.’

Natural wine consumers are beginning to ask themselves what, if any, due diligence they’re doing. While the likes of coffee and chocolate are rightly subject to ethical questions around methods of production and supply chains, alcohol has largely escaped scrutiny, until now. ‘The natural wine scene has garnered this air of moral righteousness,’ notes Brodie. ‘There seems to be this idea that if it’s natural, it’s 100% ethical, but it’s so much more complicated than that.’

‘We’re culturally diverse like all restaurants should be,’ says Taylor Sessegnon-Shakespeare, the 26-year-old who just took up the role of head pastry chef at Tavolino, the newly opened Italian restaurant in London Bridge. ‘What’s more, in multicultural cities like London where I grew up, it’s really easy to do this. Not that you’d know it from looking around so many professional kitchens, where hardly any senior roles are filled by Black people or people from minority backgrounds.’

Taylor, along with Tavolino’s executive chef Louis Korovilas, is setting a new benchmark within the food industry by taking a unique approach to hiring. Instead of leaving it to HR or a recruitment department, they are doing it themselves. ‘It was always so slow and, anyway, who knows chefs better than chefs?’ says Taylor.

But, more importantly, she explains, Tavolino hires people based more on their personality and worth ethic rather than focusing too much on their past experience – which is rare in the food world. ‘You have to take a chance with Black people and other minorities in this industry,’ says Taylor. ‘Far too often they aren’t given the opportunity to show their talent and passion. If they have that, every chef should be prepared to take time to teach them. There’s more to a person than past achievements or awards. The food world needs to open its eyes to potential.’

The result has been that Tavolino’s opening team is made up of individuals from Jamaica, Singapore, Morocco, Italy, France, Russia, the Philippines and more. But Taylor says her ‘dual role’ doesn’t stop there. ‘Once a hire has been made, you need to make them feel safe and protected. For Black chefs especially, the fight for visibility is so far from over. Caring is a long game.’

The days of being shoulder to shoulder with strangers in shop queues feel like a lifetime ago. As retail spaces prudently open back up after the Covid lockdown, many are taking it upon themselves to radically change their shopping spaces to not only adhere to social distancing guidelines, but to ensure that customers can enjoy their shopping experience stress free. New-and-improved retail experiences – that are both well-curated and consider shoppers’ Covid-related anxieties – have the capacity to elevate a brand in customers’ eyes. Here is how some retailers are showing they care:

  • Natural skincare brand Haeckels is running a ‘social experiment’ in its shop in Margate, the British seaside city. For its reopening last week, it completely refitted the store – the wood and glass cabinets and shelves full of products have been replaced with a product-free, futuristic-feeling, mirrored interior with two touchpoints for the shopping experience. Shoppers only interact with the door handle and the touchscreen to browse the Haeckels collection. One customer is allowed in the shop at a time, and clean air is pumped through the space at all times. 

  • Lifestyle boutique Goodhood has introduced private appointment slots outside of traditional opening hours to cater to those who might be afraid of shopping in increasingly crowded places. The retailer has also drastically reduced the stock in the shop to showcase an edited selection of products; this not only points customers in the direction of its e-commerce offering to check out additional stock, but also reduces the risk of contamination in the store itself. ‘Limiting customer numbers to six people at a time has helped make the shopping experience more intimate and gives us a chance to give everyone a higher level of service,’ says co-founder Kyle Stewart.

  • Dowsing & Reynolds started life as a specialist lighting accessories brand before expanding to a full home-decor portfolio. The business took a radical decision when it came to opening back up: its retail space has been transformed from a shop into a showroom. ‘This has drastically reduced the amount of product handling and allows us to keep showroom staff numbers to a minimum,’ says co-owner Ally Dowsing-Reynolds. ‘Customers have been more than happy to browse as usual before placing an order for free next-day delivery.’

As the shift to remote work continues to pose an increased risk to productivity – employee burnout – what our professional lives need most is maybe what you least expect. Naomi Bagdonas, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business and a professionally trained comedian, has just launched an online course called ‘Remotely humorous: build joyful and resilient virtual teams with humour’. ‘Small moments of fun can change the tone of a meeting instantly and how we connect with each other through our 12-inch screens,’ she tells us, before outlining three simple tips that can make a big difference.

Collect callbacks. In life, just as onstage, one of the easiest ways to get a laugh is to refer back to a joke or funny moment that happened earlier. This device is called a callback. Just listen for moments of laughter, make a mental note of them, and be on the lookout for opportunities to reference them later.

Use the medium to your advantage. Whether it’s email, social, Slack, TikTok, Zoom, your sign-on message, Zoom name or email signatures, these can all be places to inject a little personality. Instead of signing off with a standard ‘Best’ or vanilla ‘Cheers’, could you try ‘Yours, with gratitude and Lysol’? Even giving a Zoom meeting a funny name can prime everyone in that meeting to be a little more loose, relaxed, creative and open.

Don’t be afraid to fail. As long as they’re appropriate, ‘lame’ jokes have been proven to have much the same benefit as ones that elicit laughs – they make others feel more comfortable and relaxed around you, just because you tried. So, embrace the groan! At the same time, keep a healthy balance; rather than making jokes all the time, start by approaching situations on the precipice of a smile, and being more generous with your laughter at others’ jokes. By doing these two things, you’ll help create a team environment where joy comes more easily.

1. Clever ways restaurants are bouncing back in Singapore.

2. What’s really going on behind the face mask (economy).

3. The complex art and communities behind canning quality fruit.

4. Are these 3-metre square workspace pods the future of offices?

5. And something light for the weekend. Ricotta Records, a record shop... for mice.

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