Re-imagine independent boutique business with life-centred design
Finding new possibles when life-centred design meets design-centred culture
(A reflective literature based on the interviews on Design Contexts for my final research at Master of Design Futures, RMIT, Semester 2, 2020)
Earlier in April, TOAST, one of my favorite fashion brands curated a photography submission around their seasonal theme titled Living Lines. My entry was this (image on the right), lines of sunshine in my kitchen on a blissfully “caffeinated” Sunday morning. Ever since coffee became a basic element of my daily ritual, I found myself better in pausing to rest and reflect. Not only the beauty of slowness and craftsmanship, coffee, especially specialty coffee has formed a global community celebrating coffee-inspired cultures, lifestyles as well as business aesthetics where design is considered essential as art of storytelling.
During my recent research on design thinking of creative practitioners at independent boutique business, I put my lens on select speciality coffee brands across different cultural backgrounds too. The research, mainly by taking qualitative interviews, covers the earlier stage of their business establishments, key milestones along the innovations, recent problem solving faced COVID-19 and forward thinking on next steps. Thanks to the independence and transparency of their business setting, the research was able to provide me with a micro view onto their “living lines” of the business.
As I traced back to the business foundations at the very beginning, I gradually see their path shared in common horizontally across their specific business domains. These entrepreneurs all had a moment of clarity at heart to put happiness before success, lifestyle than business, sustainability on top of profitability, community over company as they perceived the business concept. There the ideation of the business is based on a crystal clear human-centered desirability = what they found from expansive life experiences of themselves and a potential niche market. In most of the cases, that has developed from the neighborhood, the community where they spent years to live, to familiarize with and to study on purpose. The grass-rooted market research at early stage, no matter the actual length of time and scale it cost, paid extremely detailed attentions, meticulous observations and reflections on human interactions.
Among the storytellers, Oyamazaki Coffee Roasters based in Oyamazaki, Kyoto is the one most fascinating, not simply because of the unique sparkles in their design thinking, but more importantly, for setting a solid example for their peers, the emerging group of life-centered design thinkers and business practitioners. They draw a brighter and colorful horizon line over the future landscape of independent boutique business.
Nakamura Keita, co-founder of Oyamazaki Coffee Roasters in Kyoto, Japan once coined his business philosophy as “post-capitalism” in his essay. He and his wife imagined the business concept out of their purpose to facilitate a healthy lifestyle away from main-stream and capitalism. After college year and prolific careers in leading business consultancy (the husband) and art critics (the wife), they came to a decision to move away from Tokyo, seeking a more peaceful way of living. “We fell for this town and decided to live here before knowing what to do to make a living. ” Mayumi, the wife shared publicly in a video program produced by Kurasu, Kyoto. They relocated from Tokyo to Oyamazaki, a suburb township which takes 15-30 minutes by train from central Kyoto. After thoughtful research and considerations, they believe that running a speciality coffee business with a focus on a roaster side, could be a viable and sustainable option of their preferred “post-capitalism” business.
Eight years later they became one of the most reputed brands in specialty coffee roasters in Japan, closely connected with the local community around their roastery and home, as well as their peers and younger followers nationwide, whom they are always open to collaborate and offer advices. Remaining as a brand and a business by two of them, the company has well established four business units: Manufacturing (as a roaster), Wholesale (B2B), eCommerce (online orders both to B and to C) and Retail experience (in-store sales of beans only and occasional pop-ups at local events). They call it a complete model and a finalized scale and have no intention to further expand as it serves the original business purpose properly.
While many might take their story as another fairytale that could only happen in the value systems in Japan, where relocation plans to revive local economies are getting popular indeed. Be it farmer, bakery or craft atelier, coffee roaster by a young couple from Tokyo to Kyoto might just sound more romantic. Well by diving deeper into the process of the business creation and innovation, I started a treasure hunt for the very logical design thinking instead of emotional triggers along their journey.
Ideation - birthplace
With professional qualifications and working experiences in Tokyo, it seems much more convenient to place oneself like the couple of Nakamura in well deserved job positions at similar modern cities, even outside Japan. Making a living away from the mainstream, the purpose of the two had them give up those easier options, and at the same time some advantages which doesn’t seem to be a wise choice anymore. “If you just want a normal security, you might stay and end up surviving your previous job within a large corporation. And if you desire more on business results or revenue streams, you would have planned to scale up or start your second business by now.” At the end of the the conversation the other day, I spoke to Nakamura-san. He smiled and nodded to it. Some may call it a run-away or less ambitious as it looks like a step-down action from a metropolitan to suburban area. But actually it is much more ambitious. What Nakamura-san wanted was not that normal financial security available at a job or two, but an entirely new value system to fulfill the vision of life. They aspire to create a business model that make sense to the lifestyle they pursue, where independence, simplicity and calm join together with a sense of community. That’s the birthplace of their business - they repurposed before the relocation. Constantly going back to the birthplace, stick to it ensure that they retrieve clarification on developing strategy and tactics all the times.
Speaking of this, I recall the manifesto we repeatedly communicate at my corporate workplace which is results-driven. Lately on a new business proposal that I have been working on, the senior management kickstarted the idea by seeing the potential needs in the market and then did a calculation on the business forecast - very positive results. I started putting together a pitch deck for internal stakeholders and investors based on a rough brief but started to question the business model immediately from the perspective of our target audience. It happens and the deck could still be done (plus look pretty fancy!) A week later after presenting the initial deck, I was told that the management had put the project on hold as they wanted to re-exam the purpose. To which I felt so much of relief.
Ideation - Birthstone
There is a piece of rock at the new shop of Oyamazaki Coffee Roasters, which according to Nakamura-san was the only and first design element confirmed by his wife, the mastermind behind the shop design. Through the conversation, I can’t help but seeing the rock as a reflection of the two themselves, the determination, the raw and honest desirability, the roots they strive to rebuild at this new home.
Based on the purpose, Nakamura-san also had gone through self-reflection to exam the viability and flexibility. A shared passion for speciality coffee and connecting people through the coffee culture, plus his skillsets dealing with numbers, and his wife’s strong sense in design aesthetics make it a strong partnership to launch a product-driven business in specialty coffee in Kyoto, where the consumers traditionally value high on artisanal spirit and local craftsmanship (coffee freshly roasted in Kyoto instead of focusing on retail service). The two started with e-commerce followed by marketing efforts at local events through pop-ups.
The combination of their skillsets and capabilities provided them with the confidence to test this business on the most critical coffee market in Japan and then reinforced by the direct feedbacks from online transactions and the local events. It also enabled them, without getting into over-stress and exhaustion, to fine-tune and build the current and complete model which satisfied their pursuit by adding a physical space into the business to engage with local community.
Like other stories we might have heard about successful independent business, there are some playfulness and spontaneity. But it is in fact not by coincidence, but a starting point from such self-reflection on who they truly are, and who they could be, not a single time but many times throughout the adventure.
Ideation - Self-motivation
“We never aspire to become a leader or trendsetter in the specialty coffee industry.
I’d rather stay away from the said trends by keeping a healthy distance.”
When sharing on the phenomenal development of speciality coffee in Japan in past 10 years, Nakamura-san clarified his purpose again. From online business only to a business on four wheels, they are self-motivated by doing the self-assessment constantly, going back to the original purpose over times. Staying on that while crafting their specialities make themselves and local customers happy enough. It is not rare or say basically common for independent business owners to get distracted and overwhelmed in multi-tasking and eventually burn out themselves. It’s forever-ON surviving mode when you talk to friends in their own business.
But from Nakamura-san’s case, I come to believe that a mindful practice in business innovation does help by building a self-motivation assessment system fundamentally. A step away from what people tell you as golden rules or common sense, we have to think harder what makes sense to ourselves and the community our business involves.
Well other than being so self-conscious, I also look out for what were the inspirations for Nakamura-san’s business ideation.
Kyoto, the acclaimed cultural capital of Japan is famous of its well preserved and unparalleled historic heritage which has had huge influence on its business and design culture too. Independently and family owned businesses from local over the generations across industries have long cultivated a vision of value on sustainability. That when being adopted to daily operations, reflects in the ways they value long-term relationship with regular customers than attracting the new; they collaborate with peers in mutual alignments than fighting for competitions; they innovate by reinventing and re-creating from traditions; they hold a higher standard in quality control for both outputs and inputs. The Kyoto-way of doing business, for which I’d like to coin it as Kyotology, standing for the art of sustainable business has been an inspiration for Nakamura-san when he looked for the direction to relocate.
There is nothing more critical than sustainability for making a life change in a new place. You make all the changes to be able to settle down, not for a more unsettling situation. Kyoto, in his word, has this sort of isolated environment that support the positive changes to evolve. By “isolation”, it refers to the strong independent culture inside the core of the business aesthetics that Kyoto appreciates; the pure and extremely high standards held by both sides of the potential business partners and consumers to evaluate any product and service. That effectively filters out the poorer quality and keep it clean, well curated inside. That is absolutely a more preferred eco-system for the couple to challenge to build a business that stands equally for quality of making and quality of living.
It was made clear by Kyoto municipal government in the city’s statement of "revitalization of Kyoto by cultural power”. “Culture is basically something that communicates with each other.”Kyoto University has also initiated "Kokoro Research Center” to drive advanced research and studies on exploring the future of the city. Kokoro in Japanese means heart, true spirt of oneself. “There is an essence in how to define the heart of Kyoto people as culture and art of utilizing it. Culture, which is generally referred as art culture, is the Kyoto-style way of working.
Before entering into the game of speciality coffee, Nakamura-san does not only realise the coffee cultural scene in Kyoto, he did also find out that household spending on coffee in Kyoto ranks No.1 in a research conducted by Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
Oyamazaki is a community of artisanal culture which is also the quality attracting Nakamura-san at first place. The quieter and slower lifestyle here allows a local business to connect with the neighbors and the extensive community by having conversations in person, which can’t be performed in a busy setting. A roastery instead of a shop serving drinks & food in-store is something manageable by two of them for a long run. Building this new life-centred business, a short drive away from the hustles in the inner city makes perfect sense after a research-based thinking process.
“Running a coffee shop at downtown Kyoto can attract a lot more tourists and generate more profits in a normal scenario, which now in the pandemic could be completely closed. It can be a totally different story. That doesn’t work for us if you look at our purpose. ” addressed by Nakamura-san.
“Effective innovation includes design activities to create solutions
that are better, more desirable and fit-for-purpose. ”
Design in innovation strategy 2020 - 2024
while developing this complete model, their prototyping also established a couple of first in industry as innovative examples.
Flexibility than personality
Speaking with coffee roasters you might often hearing them making efforts on producing original personality out of the beans and the roasting techniques available and put it as a selling point. It’s opposite here at Oyamazaki Coffee Roasters. Nakamura-san tries to make best efforts to optimize flexibility in his beans - by flexibility it refers to whichever the customers takes as their brewing process at home or at their business (wholesale partners), they can easily get the best out of the beans, fully enjoy the quality of the original beans. Other than a roaster style or brand presentation, it is a customer experience-driven business.
Serving products in beans only
To some new customers’ surprise that sometime causes complaints, they don’t offer grinding services in a hope that the customers keep the beans in best freshness before brewing. All products are sold in whole beans. In addition, they do free tastings in store, instead of selling a drink menu. Besides the operational aspects, the idea is to get as many feedbacks as possible from the customers. People are much more open to engage with others and proactively share their honest opinions during tasting sessions. That is comparatively limited when you turn it into a product for sale.
Closed door business
Despite of the immediate access from the street, the entrance of the shop is designed with a firm and wooden door on a brick and mortar structure. Neighbors nearby said that it took some serious courage for you to walk in such business (as a complement). Others visiting from the city and other places for the first time usually had a bit of hard time to locate the shop by GPS. This sounds like a failure or at least a flaw in design. We talk about connecting with the neighborhood. The space making shall be more fluid in and out especially for retail shops. But the design is actually a winning point in their reality. Having that door closed make the visitors who finally made themselves inside feel exclusive. It also echoes with Kyotology which focus more on the walk-in guests/existing customers than making attractions toward outsiders. If you have wandered in the inner city of Kyoto, you might also have noticed similar design of many atelier shops in Kyoto, where you can hardly tell the inside from the outside.
“Benefits are likely to be greater and longer lasting if businesses consider the people they are innovating for, as well as the technology needed to realise their ideas.”
Design in innovation strategy 2020 - 2024
When sharing mind with Nakamura-san, I feel the line between work and life blurred. Many of the things that we talked about are lifestyles than business styles. We used to and still put lifestyle to label a business or a brand in marketing and branding communication particularly. Fashion, restaurant or coffee shop as we believe the brands are promoting / selling a lifestyle than a line-up of SKUs. This is how we would like to manipulate customers’ mindsets. But through this research and stories like Oyamazaki Coffee Roasters, I think we failed in some marketing campaigns like that by losing the authenticity. A lifestyle business shall be life-centred and where one both the founder(s) and the community it engages can live in a certain lifestyle.
The other day I was reading An Emotional Education (introduced by Alain De Botton). Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs in the chapters of Consumer Society reminds me what Nakamura-san has experimented, is to design a business to achieve the higher level of needs, which has proved to be impossible for many conventional companies and business ruled by capitalism to fulfill successfully. This has been discovered in other stories too during this research, where the owners’ business thinking is happiness and life-centered. Even at a larger team and more complex business settings, how they build around the business is consistent with what they see also make their team believe in and feel happy in a whole picture, the vision of life. They hold respect, appreciation and gratitude of other people very high, including internal staffs, customers, collaborators and the community. Life-centered here concerns the life cycle of the business itself and the sustainability of the environment which they always prioritize in their business agenda and put into implementation on their product and service offerings.
The newly released Fjord Trends 2020 Report indicates:“Organizations will increasingly need a systems mindset when dealing with complex problem-solving: A systems mindset combines purpose with people, with life at its heart, and comes from many years of practice, craft and habit. ” “The perfect overlap between desirability, feasibility and viability is a sustainable and/or a desirable product or service that also makes business sense.” That sounds like a sensible English interpretation of Kyotology.
“Design creates culture,
culture shapes values,
values determine the future.”
Robert L Peters
How might we better our lives by drawing a design line from Kyotology and make it work for business in other cultures as well? With life-centred design thinking, shall we, as designers or entrepreneurs all join the effort to build a business as a prototype to experiment our vision of a better life, weaving a fabric into the pattern of our culture, creating added-value to the community we speak to, editing a small but important ingredient that serves the bigger picture of future?
As a Japanese major in college and a fan of today’s culture in Japan in many ways, I used to find the traditional storytelling of historic heritage a little too complicated to comprehend. The portraits of Japanese craftsmanship were also found irrelevant to our age and different cultures sometime due to the lack of cultural communication and modern translations. I’m so glad that through recent trips to Japan and this research I have seen authentic leadership and spirit of craftsmanship with a contemporary twist.
Interestingly, I have encountered other examples in same coffee industry which were created by a team of a husband and a wife, who are life-centered designers and business innovators too. For example MIA MIA in Tokyo, a newly opened coffee shop designed as a hub and a platform for community building for all generations and creative collaboration; Crooked nose & coffee stories in Vilnius, Lithuania who prefer calm, unobtrusive, minimalistic innovations. Building an independent business and entrepreneurship is becoming a more flexible option yet highly competitive as the economy is in a dramatic transition to re-structure and the job market is sinking globally. How might we also learn from these cases to create silver lining on our own career design? I will continue to explore and share along this journey.
Design in innovation strategy 2020 - 2024 (Innovate UK, 2020)
Design Thinking Comes of Age
Understanding Leadership by W.C.H. Prentice
The Meaning of Life
(The School of Life, 2019)
An Emotional Education
(introduced by Alain De Botton, first published 2019, Penguin Random House UK)
A Year in Japanese Coffee Vol.1
Interview with Oyamazaki Coffee Roasters by Kurasu Kyoto
Standart magazine (Japanese edition issue 10, and English edition issue 19)