Entrepreneurs: Instead of focusing on one business, try starting two at the same time

Quality cache.
Quality cache.
Image: jarmoluk/Pixabay, CC-BY-1.0
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“We make jeans. That’s it. Nothing else,” insists Hiut Denim, a maker of organic cotton and raw selvedge jeans, on its website. In 2002, in the Welsh town of Cardigan, offshoring closed down Britain’s biggest jeans factory, which once employed one in 10 workers in the area. A decade later, Hiut started putting the factory back to work while feeding the demand for authentic, handcrafted, artisanal clothing.

Though it boasts a single-minded mission, Hiut in fact does more than just make jeans. From its earliest days in business, it set out to become a successful publisher too. “There’s two factories,” says founder David Hieatt, “There’s the jeans factory and then there’s the content factory.” Aware that more people aspire to the creative, crafty lifestyle its brand represents than can actually afford its high-end jeans priced around £200 ($310), it launched an online magazine and several blogs and newsletters covering design, music, film—anything that might inspire its growing community of fans. All but the latest edition of its annual print “year book” have sold out.

Hiut understands that putting effort into publishing nurtures a loyal audience that will buy its jeans (it is expanding its workforce to satisfy a backlog of orders), spread its story, and join its quest to put more thought into how things are made.

Conventional wisdom demands that a company “do one thing well” (it’s Hiut’s slogan, as it happens), especially when it’s just starting out. But there’s a difference between most companies, which make money to do good, and those that make money by doing good. Forward-thinking companies are finding that running two different but complementary business models alongside each other does a better job of meeting both commercial and social goals.

Hill & Szrok, a storefront in London’s trendy East End, is one such hybrid business. A butcher by day, it specializes in free-range organic meats sourced from small farms around England. But inside you won’t find the traditional counter filled with ready-cut meat. Entire carcasses are chopped on a large marble slab in the center of the shop. In the evening, the slab becomes a communal dining table (after a thorough cleaning)—and the butcher transforms it into a restaurant serving leftover cuts that weren’t sold during the day.

The idea was borrowed from 17th-century cookshops, which sold food or cooked food and served it to customers. By operating every day of the week from early in the morning until late at night—more than would make sense as either a butcher or a restaurant alone—it reduces its waste, attracts rave reviews from foodies, and generates enough cash to pay for the area’s expensive rent.

Running dual-track businesses isn’t the sole province of companies selling premium products to sophisticates. GiveMeTap, a recent graduate of Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator, operates in the most prosaic of categories: water. The social enterprise sells reusable stainless-steel water bottles that help fund the building of wells in African communities that lack clean drinking water.

Aware of how tricky, and awkward, it can be to top-up water bottles when out and about, the company has also set up a network of cafes and restaurants that agree to offer free refills to anyone with a GiveMeTap bottle—no purchase necessary, no questions asked. This is a no-brainer for retailers, from independent coffee shops to Pizza Huts, and hundreds of “taps” across more than 150 cities are now mapped in the company’s mobile app. Bearing a branded sticker in their windows, these outlets attract potential customers they might not serve otherwise, help cut down on plastic bottle waste, and spread the word about GiveMeTap, its product, and its social mission.

The value of focus should not be underestimated. But far from diluting resources or distracting management, pairing two operations under one roof can be a recipe for success, particularly for the growing number of startups seeking to maximize social good alongside profits.

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Image by jarmoluk on Pixabay, licensed under CC-BY-1.0.