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An Interview with Seán Mullan (owner of Third Space) – how to start a business in a time of recession?

11 December 2012

As a new citizen of Dublin I have a child-like excitement about exploring the city and discovering great views, cool pubs and famous historic sites. Also, as a coffee and café lover I am especially interested in finding a place where I can meet someone for a nice afternoon latté. So it was to my great delight that 6 months before we moved to Dublin, on a pre-arrival reconnaissance visit,  I was introduced to THIRD SPACE which is a new thriving café/restaurant in Smithfield, opposite the Jameson Distillery.

Third Space opened on Valentines’ Day 2012 and, despite the pressures of the recession, has been booming and busy every single day since it started. I was fortunate enough to catch up with the founder and owner of Third Space, Seán Mullan, and asked him all about the journey so far and what lessons we can learn in starting similar ventures in Dublin today.

(1) How did the journey begin?

Before moving into the restaurant business Seán was the Pastor of a church in Blanchardstown, a teacher in a theological college and the director of a national Christian organisation, so I was intrigued to know what were the factors that motivated him to try something totally different. He told me that he was on holiday in Italy, his father had just died, he was coming up to his 49th birthday and he realised that the notion of ‘The Year Of Jubilee’ in the Scriptures starts when you’re 49, in the 50th year of your life.  The idea of The Year Of Jubilee is that all bets are off, all debts are cancelled, there is a clean slate and a chance to start over. So Sean said to himself:

If I had a blank sheet, what would I do?

And he admitted that he had already said to somebody in a moment of un-guardedness that:

If I could do anything I wanted I would open up a coffee shop in the middle of Dublin and spend my day drinking coffee and talk to the punters about life’s big questions.

So that is where the dream began.

(2) What is the vision of Third Space?

There were two important building blocks in the starting of Third Space. Firstly, after years of working with not-for-profits whose Achilles’ heal was always funding, Seán wanted to create a self-sustaining social enterprise which benefited the community but was also self-funding. Secondly, during the Celtic Tiger boom of the noughties, apartments, offices and retail space surged but community space was ignored (it didn’t bring in the same yield, and even coffee shops that started in that time had to get people in and out as quickly as possible and close at 4pm, to make enough money to pay for the high rent).

So the idea was to take advantage of the recession and the low rents and to produce a self-sustaining business that provided neighbourhood and community space…it is not living space, it is not working space, it is third space…it is space where local people can gather regularly, informally and inexpensively.

(3) What have been the biggest challenges, surprises and joys?

As I sat in the café that afternoon (at 4pm no less!) the place was completely full, there was not a free table in sight and there was a lovely buzz as people of all ages and backgrounds chatted to one another. Seán said that the biggest challenge was that the café had been way busier than they ever expected and his greatest surprise was the immediate and overwhelming amount of goodwill they had received from their customers – “People were extraordinarily grateful and kept telling us.” It was at this point that he started to spontaneously re-tell numerous stories of grateful customers.

One man came up to me – a serious guy, in his suit, straight face, standing at the table in a busy lunch hour and said to me:

“Business going okay?”

And I said:

“Yes it is going well so far thanks.”

And he said:

“You have transformed our working week…I’m serious you have!”

Before he launched into another story I asked him:

(4) What is unique about the design and layout of the space?

Some of the things are deliberate and counter-intuitive. For example there is a raised seating area which has 2 big tables that seat 8-10 people and as you walk up to the raised area there is a sign that says “Up here it is okay to talk to strangers.” The idea is that people share the big tables and make connections they wouldn’t otherwise have made. He told me of a time when he saw five people sitting at that table. None of them knew each other before they came in and they were having great banter and chat and at the end of their lunch we found out that one of them was an American tourist and he had a map out and the others were Dublin women who didn’t know each other and were telling him how he should spend his day.

Seán says they could fit lots more tables and chairs in (and make more money!) but they didn’t want to crowd the space. “We deliberately wanted people to be able to breathe and breathe deeply.”They wanted a place that was very LIGHT and they therefore kept the very high ceilings and left all the pipes and wires exposed. They have had up to 6-7 buggies in there at one time. They want to welcome all ages and all types of people – they try to accommodate people of different social and ethnic backgrounds, that is the whole ethos.  They also want to work with local artists, sporting bodies (they sponsor a local youth football club) and different groups from the city (often in an evening a different group will use it for a reception or activity of some kind including music, craft and board game evenings). Sean says:

We try to avoid stereotyping people but create space and let people fill it. People can come in and use the toilet or get changed and we hope this says to them “you’re welcome and this is your space as much as anyone else’s.”

(5) Tell us your favourite story which makes you say “it was worth it”?

As I have already said, during our half an hour interview Sean regularly launched into stories of different people who have been touched in some way by the café so when I came to ask this question it seemed rather redundant. However this is what he said:

One of the best for me was when a man came in on his own one day, I think he was probably from a traveller background but I can’t be sure…he looked around a bit nervously…a lady that works here at lunch time went up to him, told him he was welcomed, got him a seat and helped him order his food. He called her over after he had ordered his food and said:

“What kind of a place is this? I have never been treated like this in anywhere that I have ever been before.”

And that was big for me, that someone was able to feel that they were welcomed and that they belonged.

I thought that might be the only story but Seán continued:

We have had people come up to us with tears in their eyes as they leave and say “I have never been to a place like this before.”

Someone said to us one day “this place has a generous spirit and that is what people are looking for in times like this.” There is a sense in which you are connecting with something that is more than a sum of its parts. I watched a lady the other day and after she finished her coffee she sat there for at least an hour looking out of the window and it was the most wonderful feeling to know you have been able to give someone the gift of space and a moment and you just knew from her that she wanted to be there and didn’t feel the need or pressure to go anywhere else.

There are loads of other stories. One of the customers got sick and the staff organised a card to be sent to the hospital…our staff are great and I would say that each of our staff members could name at least 100 customers and tell you something about them…and lots of our customers don’t need to order their coffee, the staff know what it is…there is a community developing naturally…I love it when you get senior barristers sitting beside teenage tourists, sharing the table together, having a bit of craic…it’s great!

(6) What are your hopes and plans for Third Space?

Sean’s plan was always to start 4-5 cafés throughout the city; that what they were doing would be successful enough that others would start to imitate it. Therein lies the potential for change in this city as a whole.

If Dublin becomes a Third Space city then – it has been proved through research – it becomes a cool place to live and then young creatives want to live in Dublin and when they do that, the business follows them. The business goes to the place where the young creatives are living and working so it could ultimately have an upward effect on the economy of the city by making it a more attractive place to live.

I quickly realised that Séan had a much bigger vision than just running a money-making café in Dublin, but actually his aim was to impact the city positively so I wanted to ask him some broader questions to end with.

(7) What are your hopes for Dublin/Ireland as it comes out of a time of recession?

The big thing for the next couple of years is that we learn the lessons we need to learn from the recession…and for me the number one lesson is that relationships matter and we forgot that in the Celtic Tiger era. We went after money at the expense of relationships and the common good…it was everyone for themselves and we created an environment were we were in competition with one another and everyone else was the opposition…for a city that functioned so well on the importance of relationships it was amazing how quickly we forgot that…and it is starting to happen, when you are unemployed you realise how important relationships are.

I guess the second thing is that we pursue a shared vision for the city and what the city could become. One of the things that inspires me is a verse from the Old Testament which talks about seeking the peace and prosperity of the city. The word that is used there is “Shalom” which is a sense of thriving, connectedness, well-being and being well knitted together. That can only happen when the citizens of the city share a common vision.

(8) What encouragement/advice would you give to others who want to do something similar?

If you have a vision that is true and bigger than yourself, then pursue it and don’t give up. What I thought would take me 6 months took me 30 months…I expected to be open almost 2 years before I was and during that time I was tempted to give up many, many times.

Sean gave me 4 pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t give up.
  2. Find the people who will help you not give up. When your own resources have run out they give you the encouragement you need.
  3. Collaboration – it is a team effort. Bring in others who will help you and compensate for your weaknesses.
  4. Make sure you have some kind of philosophical foundation that goes deep and keeps you on track when (a) it is tough and (b) you get pushed in another direction (e.g. the pressure to fill the place with more tables to earn more money, at the expense of creating space).

Sean ended by sharing his philosophical foundation for the whole thing:

For me my understanding of who God is and the value of a person…that is enormous. I want to create space for people and for community because there is something God-like in that and that has shaped me.

—-

To find out more about Third Space do check out http://www.thirdspace.ie or follow @thirdspacedub

To see similar posts,

(1) read this article about how another restaurateur is using the recession to his advantage;

(2) read this article on how to get a job in a time of recession.

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