From London to Lisbon: how one entrepreneur learned the value of creating a community
n a bustling street in Lisbon stands a family owned cafe that was, for its owners, a product of a dream. Here’s how an entrepreneurial idea became a reality, despite the challenges along the way.
Located in the neighborhood of Santos, Rua Santos-o-Velho is where tradition and modernity collide. Pastel colored apartments with wrought-iron balconies share their street with a selection of trendy cafes, market stalls and secondhand shops selling a range of vintage wares.
Number 38 is a dusky pink building with wooden tables outside, where a line of locals and expats queue to get their morning coffee. This is Mercearia da Mila, a cafe owned by Tiago Rodrigues Jorge and his wife, Mila, who gave the business its name.
Since opening, Mila’s has become a significant part of the local community. With carefully selected products that champion local bakers, fishmongers, butchers, and independent retailers, the local cafe owners dedicate themselves to conducting ethical business. The cafe sees a stream of regular customers that range from young digital nomads to elderly Portuguese women bemused by takeaway plastic cups.
While they welcome international customers through their doors, it’s the familiar faces from their local neighborhood that they like to see return. “It shows we’re doing something right then,” Tiago tells Startup Guide.
Lisbon during the crisis
Lisbon has, in recent years, become a more attractive place to start up a business, but it hasn’t always been this way. In 2010, when Tiago left Lisbon, the place he had called home since childhood, Portugal’s financial crisis was at its worst.
He remembers how the central area of Lisbon downtown had surrendered itself to complete ruin: “It was a shambles. No one was living there. The buildings were all collapsing. Businesses just weren’t able to thrive.”
Even Santos, now a creative hub where architects rub shoulders with designers and restaurant owners, was completely abandoned at this time.
The crisis was not something that you would talk about. It was just something that you would feel.
For Tiago, Lisbon had become an echo chamber for personal stories that circled around the same resounding issue. “There was always a friend of a friend whose boss suddenly stopped paying them wages. People were being held hostage to the situation because they could either choose to work more hours for less money or be unemployed,” he says.
The disrepair of buildings and businesses was a tangible indicator of the country’s desperation but, according to Tiago, locals said little about the matter. “The crisis was not something that you would talk about. It was just something that you would feel,” he says. There was an unspoken understanding that times were hard.
“This is part of the problem with Portuguese culture. It feels like people are just too nice,” Tiago says. If the politicians are not doing what they should be doing, we just say, ‘that’s alright.’” In Tiago’s opinion, this inability to vocalize their suffering deepened the crisis for Portuguese citizens.
Several years abroad
When the opportunity arose to move to London, Tiago left Lisbon and began searching for jobs as soon as he arrived. “I went on Gumtree as soon as I got there and had an interview with a deli. Then I got a job stacking shelves,” Tiago says. “I’ve done so many things throughout my life, so I was prepared to do whatever.”
During his time as a manager at Bayley and Sage, an independent chain of delis with six stores across West London, Tiago began to realize how small “pockets of community,” as he calls them, can be created anywhere – even in a vast city like London.
In Parson’s Green, where he lived above the shop that he managed, Tiago was able to get to know the locals and offer them an experience that kept the same people coming back. This was the seed for the idea of eventually running a company and creating a community of his own.
Tiago and Mila met in London and were later married in the Alentejo region in Portugal. The couple had always planned to open their own business together, but they spent years looking for a place to house their dream. London was simply too large and expensive.
London is a saturated market if your budget is on a shoestring. You can’t have an impact unless you go big.
Tiago and Mila decided to set up outside of London and create something on a small scale, but they were unsure about a location. According to Tiago, Buzzfeed, quite literally, played an integral role in choosing a new place to live.
“We googled 'Top ten places to live', and Vancouver just kept coming up. We didn't know anyone there. I'd never been to Vancouver, so we built this whole dream about moving there,” Tiago says.
But after fixing the deadline of shipping everything to arrive at the same time they did, the dream of Canada’s coastal city seemed to fall short. Trump had entered the scene, and the world seemed very gloomy. This period of their lives was marked by indecision. The only continuity for them was hearing about the “Lisbon dream.”
The announcement in 2015 that Web Summit was to relocate to the Portuguese capital seemed to signify that change was approaching.
“It was definitely one of the key things that made us realize that Lisbon was gaining its place on the map,” Tiago says, as well as the reports of a fleet of digital nomads arriving in Lisbon, and the city becoming the new San Francisco.
Back in the Portuguese capital
“I remember we were sitting in a cafe one day just writing the pros and cons of London, Vancouver, and Lisbon on a piece of paper,” Tiago says. “With Lisbon, there was always the doubt of, ‘is this place ready to take a business?’, but I knew that Lisbon, at the time, didn’t have any places like this cafe. I knew it was going to be something different.”
The couple returned to Lisbon at a time when the country was just starting to get back on its feet. According to Tiago, the successful opening of Mila’s was a combination of strategic timing, location, and a great deal of hard work.
“When we opened, it was just Mila and me behind the counter. We didn't have any employees. The first person we employed was three months later,” Tiago says, by which time, the couple had worked every day from seven in the morning until nine at night for 12 weeks straight.
“At that time it was so intense. We thought, ‘all of our livelihood is this. It's not much, but it's all we got.’”
But while sleepless nights and an outpouring of ideas allowed the business to steadily acquire momentum, aspects of their surroundings slowed them down. As an entrepreneur, you often have to be prepared to accept that people will not always share your vision. Consequently, according to Tiago, it’s sometimes necessary to adjust your pace.
“Sometimes it seems that the rest of the world doesn't care about your ideas or about your dreams or about what you plan to do in the world, and everything just shuts down to bureaucracy,” he says, adding that registering your business in Lisbon can be quite a disheartening process.
“You get so excited about the prospects of your future business and you get into the registration office and the lady simply says, ‘just fill out this form and wait in line.’”
The ups and downs of entrepreneurship
According to Tiago, it’s easy to feel defeated when embarking on an entrepreneurial journey.
People won’t always support what you want to do – the important thing is to learn how to take things in your stride.
“I think everyone who starts their own business knows that it is relentless. But it’s such a joy, because in a way, the stress never goes away. You just learn how to live with it.”
When asked what piece of advice he would give to budding entrepreneurs, Tiago’s answer is largely associated with finances.
I think everyone who starts their own business knows that it is relentless. But it’s such a joy.
When starting a business that relies entirely on paying customers coming through the door, you need a “serious financial buffer.” Tiago says it’s a good idea to estimate the amount of money you need to start a company, and then double or even triple it.
“The first few months is like bleeding, it’s just bleeding. Whether people come in or not, you are the one that is paying up. You have to pay your suppliers, your electricity and all of your utilities, and they don’t care if you have customers or not.”
For this reason, Tiago says that entrepreneurship can often feel masochistic. As a person with a dream, you suffer.
“If we write down the cons of being an entrepreneur, the sleepless nights, the constant worry, the coming up with new ideas to make ends meet, all of that makes up 23 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds of the day,” Tiago says. “And then there's 30 seconds of my day when I sigh and think, ‘I've accomplished this.’”
Building a community
Nevertheless, Tiago considers himself incredibly lucky to have landed back in Lisbon. Santos, with its expats and locals living side by side and its local businesses “working towards the same direction,” is now a glowing example of how people can work together to create a community, with Mila’s situated right at its center.
“When we were doing the business plan, Mila and I, we wrote a whole paragraph on building a place for the community. But the truth is, we didn’t know how to do that. It just turned out that that is what happened,” Tiago says.
Writing a business plan can often feel like completing a checklist of things that you should be doing, but according to Tiago, this can sometimes be a fallacy.
“How do you create a community?” Tiago says. “Mila’s is simply a communal table and a coffee machine. That’s how you do it.”
While Mila’s is primarily based on a takeaway model, some of its most frequent customers have a permanent place in the cafe that they can call their own: Behind the cash desk is a shelf where people from all around the world can keep their own mug to use when they return – a tangible reminder that communities can spring up anywhere, at any time.
Main photo: Eglė Duleckytė, Global Production Lead at Startup Guide