After a lot of talks and research by @islem and @sofien-dahem and me, we collected quite a lot of ideas and inspirations around Islem's business concept of a co-working space and business incubator in the Gbelli region of Tunsia. I'll try to summarize it below into a rough business plan. This is a wiki, so @islem and everyone else can just edit it to make improvements.
1. Basic Considerations
The goal. Islem's ultimate goal is a combined co-working space and business incubator in the Gbelli region of Tunisia, which cares to create businesses with innovative date palm products. This goal is not negotiable, but the way to achieve it is.
Introducing co-working in rural areas. The very concept of a co-working space is not known in the Gbelli region so far, and it would have to be introduced gradually to make it understood by the locals. For example, a café that happens to provide good wifi and desks would become an attractive out-of-home workplace, and could later morph into a "proper" co-working space.
Adapting the concept of a co-working space. At the same time, the concept of a co-working space would have to be adapted according to the local situation to be attractive and successful. Simply providing space is not a sufficient motivation for people in rural areas to pay anything for such a service. However, if the space would provide more specific (and unique) assistance for date palm related businesses, it's a different story. An in-house factory for palm tree plywood and a woodworking workshop ("fablab style") with tools to rent are examples for such specific assistance.
On the failure of business incubation. We see a fundamental mismatch between the problems of becoming a successful new business in Tunisia (or the MENA region in more general) and the solutions offered by business incubators and other startup assistance organizations and programmes. Namely, they bring their own pre-made solutions (let's say an "incubation programme") that are not designed for the actual, prosaic, matter-of-fact problems faced by the fledgling businesses they want to assist. For example, to our knowledge none of the existing co-working spaces and business incubators in Tunisia cared to solve the issue of international payments for business purposes, faced by all small and new companies in Tunisia right now.
Being a helpful incubator. To not repeat this failure mode of incubators, this one wants to be different: it will provide infrastructure-type solutions for the very local, detailed problems faced by the business it hosts. It will listen to the challenges faced by these businesses to make sense of them. While it will not be able to solve all of the problems of starting any kind of small business in Tunisia and for everyone who has them, but can solve the 10-15 most common, shared problems of date palm related startups. (Note that "problem" here only refers to problems that are too big for a small business to solve – everything else is a very specific problem for the startup itself, and solving it alone is the very purpose of the startup.)
The Business Founder's Toolkit. The incubator would want to collaborate with other co-working spaces and incubators in Tunisia which have already gathered insights about the challenges of business founders but without finding the energy to publish these and their recommended solutions in a high-quality, re-usable form online. The result will be tools in various forms (those consisting of knowledge or software would be provided for free, physical resources would cost money and bring revenue). For example specifically for date palm related companies, these tools could include the following (very preliminary, as we have no idea what challenges they are facing exactly):
Receiving international payments. An international prepaid credit card that works with Tunisian ATMs and is not coupled to a bank account could be a solution.
Import service for tools and equipment. If a tool or substance is not available in Tunisia right now, ordering and paying it and getting it through customs is a major pain in the ass even for very small items (10 EUR "glow in the dark" powder or 10 EUR electronics board). A tested and tried import service could fix that, while also providing revenue for the incubator. It may need a hack solution at first, in which case piggybacking the goods on the cars full of used stuffs which go by ferry from Palermo to Tunis might be a good option.
Accounting service. In the Edgeryders company, we struggled with accounting in the early days until we found FreeAgent. A similar solution but adapted for the small business context in Tunisia would help a great deal, esp. since some founders in a rural region will have limited financial literacy, to be fixed by this type of software assistance.
Exclusive palm tree raw materials. Raw materials that are manufactured in-house and sold exclusively to startups in the incubator provide a source of revenue while providing the startups with a much simpler way to start – they only have to add the ideas and designs and don't have to care about the raw materials themselves. Raw materials can include palm tree plywood, palm tree MDF etc..
Machine shop. Being able to rent machines by the hour rather than having to source and buy them is an important thing that makes starting a business simpler. Would be a normal woodworking workshop, plus a CNC mill for wood, and perhaps some innovative machines (for example, an injection molding machine modified to use the "palm fiber with resin" paste of which MDF board is produced).
Export and direct sales assistance. Exporting to the European Union's "Single Market" is a major pain in the ass because it involves dealing with the TARIC customs database etc.. However, all non-food palm tree products fall into similar customs categories, and exporting them to customers in Europe is much simpler with step-by-step instructions for just this case. It can even be provided as a service by the incubator, combined with warehousing and fulfillment partners in Europe to provide cost-efficient logistics. All of that will ideally be in a direct sales model – selling directly to the end consumer – as it lets the Tunisian company collect a much higher part of the final sales price, making it much simpler to become profitable. For successful direct sales, quite some digital marketing knowledge is necessary, and that would also be provided in step-by-step instructions to the incubator's startups.
We are discussing two potential ways of founding this incubator (and we're welcoming your contributions to help decide between them):
Indirect: Start with one pilot business, grow an ecosystem around it. For the strategy, see this Dynalist task list. The pilot business' product would probably be "tiny house furniture", see below.
Direct: Get funding to create this new type of incubator. Quite some organizations with "big pockets" try to support the startup ecosystem in Tunisia, and they might want to fund this "radical new type of business incubator" because their past approaches failed. The "radical and new" component can be presented in a compelling way, without overwhelming the audience with all the details that this incubator promises to care about.
3. Tiny House Furniture as a Pilot Product
Tiny Houses have become a proper emerging market by now, with house builders and workshops etc. catering specifically to this "movement". It also is no longer a "poor people's solution" but has gentrified into a hipster phenomenon already – which means, there are people who can spend serious money on this.
In this context, there is still no company specifically providing furniture for tiny houses. But as I can confirm from years of living in the 4 × 2.20 m space in my truck, ordinary furniture does not cut the mustard. You need specialized space saving furniture, and it is an area still awaiting a lot of idea input by designers.
Tiny house furniture also connects to furniture for campervans and other RVs ("recreational vehicles"), and #vanlife is already becoming a thing among young Tunisians. An online configurator that allows to order tiny house / RV furniture in desired sizes would add a lot of options and potential customers as well. The process can still be efficient as the online configurator can produce CNC data to create this furniture (for example via OpenSCAD or similar parametric CAD solutions).
This makes it a good candidate for a first product range from palm tree wood that could be sold successfully on international markets. Especially so, since tiny house advocates are usually eco-conscious minimalists, so marketing products from recovered wood resources to them should be a simple task (palm tree plywood would be made from palm midribs, which are the "branches" that a palm tree discards over time as it grows, and which are currently of very little use and are often just burned). Feedback and ideas on this evaluation are of course welcome
To conclude, have a look at related furniture items made by others:
4. Ideas and Inspirations for Palm Products
Here's a link collection about palm materials:
palm plywood and veneer products, proving such materials are possible
Jereed, an Egyptian startup creating furniture, wall coverings etc. from palm-derived wood
Jozour, another startup creating wood products from palm midribs and other palm resources
And a list of items typically already made from wood in Tunisia:
- shop equipment
- date praline boxes etc.
- room separation walls
- office furniture
- school furniture (interesting, as this uses a primitive uncomfortable DIY design throughout the country and very similar to designs in India, Nepal etc. – making an improved version here could have a worldwide market)
- parquet (floor and wall)
- wooden houses
- children toys
And a list of other potential palm wood wood products beyond "tiny house furniture":
- tiny house kitchen items (cutting board, pull-out table, made-to-order kitchens)
- made-to-order wooden boxes, with online configurator, for storage of valuable instruments and tools (for example: a 25 × 25 × 15 cm box with custom inner storage organizer elements to hold an optical instrument)
- firewood pellets and blocks (also potentially from palm leaves)
- complete houses made from date palms (insulation, walls, roofing, furniture, everything – and if only as a marketing stunt)