Crowd-Sourcing a Business Idea

Social media, a gentrifying Vancouver neighbourhood and a novel business concept all play a part in This Space.

Michael Leung and Josh Michnik, This Space | BCBusiness
Michael Leung (left) and Josh Michnik want locals to tell them what business they should open.

Social media, a gentrifying Vancouver neighbourhood and a novel business concept all play a part in This Space.

Walking south on Main Street you still find golden dragon statues and faded panda signs adorning the red street lamps, but this isn’t your grandmother’s Chinatown. A massive new pub at the corner of Main and Georgia beckons with stylish exposed brick and local craft beers. Next door, a posh furniture store offers modern interiors in the lobby of a new condo tower with open floor plans and balconies featuring brightly coloured glass panels. 

Hang a left on Union Street and you pass a shrine to hippie guitar god Jimi Hendrix, but beyond that lies more modernity in the new V6A condo development, its mostly empty lobby dotted with boutiques and peddlers of the flannel shirts and ugly sweaters popular with the 20-something hipsters cruising by on their custom bicycles.

Welcome to the home of This Space. With its high ceilings, white walls and shiny concrete floor, it could have been the venue for another ritzy specialty shop, but instead it houses nothing but a few chairs and a Ping-Pong table. Enjoying a game are two guys looking to do things a little bit differently in this evolving neighbourhood.

“There are a lot of concerns around gentrification,” says 38-year-old Michael Leung, a gregarious man whose career path has included investment banking and non-profit work abroad, most recently in the Middle East, where he had the unenviable task of attracting tourists to Afghanistan. “Why would I just come in here blind and throw my own money into a restaurant when I don’t know if there’s a client base to sustain it?” He explains that when Josh Michnik, currently his Ping-Pong opponent, approached him with the idea of giving local residents a vote on what they want, “I instantly knew there was something there.”

Michnik, 28, is also a V6A condo-dweller, nearby business owner and an art director who jumped on the opportunity to partner with Leung when the latter bought the 600-square-foot space as an investment property. “People want control of what goes on in their neighbourhood,” says the soft-spoken and bespectacled Michnik. “This is what excites us, getting the community to build a sustainable business.”

The pair turned to crowd-sourcing – social-media-speak for leveraging the power of the Internet to consult with masses of prospective customers. They launched a website at to supplement the input they’re gathering through face-to-face encounters with residents and businesses. Local residents can post their suggestions and concerns, and answer a series of polls meant to help the duo decide if This Space will become a restaurant, grocery store, retail outlet or something entirely different. They hope to open in February 2012 and plan to make every business decision public on the site, from hiring contractors to gathering feedback once the business is live, to figuring out how to share part of the profits with the community. Leung is financing the venture out of his own pocket, but plans to seek outside operators (in another public process) if the community votes for a business he has no experience in running.

One person watching This Space with interest is Kenton Low, a marketing instructor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. He says Leung and Michnik have found an innovative way to reduce startup risks, generate early buy-in and create a sense of ownership in the venture.

“Some companies resist crowd-sourcing because they fear they’ll lose control,” he says. “But customers are moving more into the driver’s seat with the growth of social media. The crowd-sourcing approach gets you pretty deep into the weeds to understand the true wants of your customers. It’s a complete two-way dialogue.”