Lean Coffee in Makhanda

Thursday, 18 July, 2019

Lean Coffee in Makhanda

Lean Coffee started in the US in 2009 when co-creators Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith were looking for a way to discuss lean thinking and lean start-ups in an informal setting. So, what is Lean Coffee? It’s a simple idea: a small gathering of people where the agenda is directed by the participants, who show up to learn and collaborate through group discussions. 

Since 2009, the idea was spread around the world, and taken off in Grahamstown (renamed Makhanda), thanks to Rhodes University’s Technology Transfer Manager, Suzanne Wolhuter. New to the town, Wolhuter wanted to support Makhanda’s entrepreneurial scene by introducing Lean Coffee sessions. We chatted to Suzanne Wolhuter to find out more…

First off, what is ‘Lean Coffee’ about?

“I first encountered the Lean StartUp Coffee in Cape Town; the team from The Lean StartUp run it weekly at Truth Coffee on Somerset Road. The Lean Coffee is a global phenomenon which is basically a space where entrepreneurs, start-ups and small companies meet to talk about their triumphs and challenges. 

Usually, the format is an adapted design thinking exercise which is created by having an agendaless, speakerless conversation about what you care about, which for this group usually is making money and the challenge thereof. We do it a bit differently in Makhanda, but our aim is still to support entrepreneurs and innovators and encourage an ecosystem which encourages entrepreneurial activity.”

What inspired you to launch the Lean Coffee startup sessions in Makhanda?

“I’m the Manager at the Rhodes Technology Transfer unit, and I realised after looking around that there’s very little entrepreneurial and innovation culture locally. I like to think that, if Rhodes is going to create a spin-out company or license some of our technology, we want local talent to be the obvious choice for the human resources and skills to run with those new ventures!”

How does one go about fostering an entrepreneurial culture?

“Well, that's a big question, and requires a lot more than a simple Lean Coffee has to offer. But what we do is combine some of the agile thinking and interactive discussion of a traditional Lean StartUp Coffee with some facilitation and workshops. So, for example, we had a Lean Coffee over the National Arts Festival that focused solely on how creatives can structure their business models. We used the Business Canvas tool and some interpretive dance (kidding), to talk about banishing the "starving artist syndrome". I work with a co-facilitator, Lowell Scarr, a student entrepreneur (PhD is in the pipeline) to bring real-world knowledge and experience to the table.”

Why do you think that South Africa isn’t good at embracing the concept of “failing fast”?

“Well firstly (and huge kudos to Nick Harry for exploring this), South Africans are terrified of failure. Especially if there is money involved. So just the culture switch to rather fail early so you can try again is massive. Secondly, and I say this knowing I will get some flak for it...our youth are arrogant; they don't believe in consulting, collaborating, sharing and learning from others.

They often won't even Google their idea to see if someone else has done it before; instead, they are fuelled by the belief that their idea will work and it will make money. The Lean Coffee tries to gently demystify these mistaken beliefs, and rather encourage multi-approach thinking and some discovery!”

So how can budding local entrepreneurs better succeed in the market?

“Makhanda is an interesting place; there are so many stark contrasts. We have poverty and hunger and no water, but we also have bright students, excellent education and the many opportunities that arise from the negatives. What we don't have a lot of? Systems of support that connect the two, or draw the connections so others can take action. I guess that's what I was getting at; our local entrepreneurs need to focus on local problems with modern entrepreneurial skills and energy. 

This doesn’t necessarily have to focus on the formal sector; the informal economy is growing, and represents tonnes of untapped opportunities, but if the entrepreneur doesn’t know how to identify a customer need or a market gap... We don't want to just keep encouraging magwinya (vetkoek) businesses, we need innovation to be applied.”

What’s come out of the Lean Coffee sessions so far?

“The students, business people, academics and townsfolk that attend always seem to react with "that is something I never thought about", so I feel like it’s a bit of business enlightenment. And we have had some excellent business ideas spontaneously erupting. We have had visiting speakers, like IP Attorneys from both KISCH and Spoor and Fischer. There have been many 'aha moments’, some skills transfer and many, many, many laughs. No millionaires yet, but it’s early days!

I believe entrepreneurs are born, not made. The Lean Coffee is a place where you can figure out what you are, and maybe more importantly what you aren't. But I think most importantly, a warm cup of coffee, a giggle and learning just one thing about business (please god can it be the concept of cash flow!) is sowing into that entrepreneurial ecosystem, and that's plenty for me.”

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