Many of our emerging new entrepreneurs are struggling for a place to call home, yet the answer may well be sitting on our doorstep.
As Australia emerges from the worst of COVID and repeated lockdowns across the country, many of our surviving and new businesses are looking for a base to begin again.
Despite what many people think, not all of them operate in the cloud or can be run from the spare bedroom.
Boutique retail stores, restaurants, cafes, arts and entertainment: all of them require a physical presence.
Person-to-person contact is important in the services and retail sector, and most of these business need suitable street-front or commercial premises to work from.
But securing a decent location is one of the biggest challenges that start-ups can face.
Competition for prime locations can be intense; established business with a proven track record are often seen as more desirable tenants than an unknown new venture.
And even once a place can be found, signing up typically requires the outlay of a substantial long-term financial commitment.
In addition to paying the rent, start-ups have to find the money for deposit bonds, potential refurbishment and fit-out costs, and are asked to commit themselves to binding multi-year contractual leasing arrangements.
Not surprisingly, then, these factors often combine to deter many would-be growing ventures.
So we have a problem in the property market: not every business can work from home.
But not every new business can afford to meet the demands of the rental market.
The results? Our city streets and shopfronts are missing some of the vitality and new ideas that fired-up entrepreneurs are bursting to share with us.
Our city streets and shopfronts are missing some of the vitality and new ideas that fired-up entrepreneurs are bursting to share with us.
But there is a way in which we can give start-up entrepreneurs an entry into the retail street-front whilst minimizing both their risks and those of landlords.
Perhaps it's time to consider something akin to the long-established social housing model found in the residential housing sector, where developers of large-scale projects are required to make available a small proportion of newly-built properties for disadvantaged tenants.
It prevents low-income residents from being priced out of the market, whilst still encouraging building projects that are commercially successful.
Should we also adopt a "social leasing" approach for small business, where landlords set aside a specific portion of new commercial developments for start-up ventures?
Such tenants would be given the opportunity to use these for a fixed term, at a reasonable commercial rent, but not locked into a binding, long-term commitment.
Somewhat similar to business incubators, it might also be reasonable to expect them to move on after a certain time, freeing up the same space for the next generation of new entrepreneurs.
There are numerous issues that need to be worked through. A social leasing provision may be a reasonable request to make on property portfolios owned by large corporations, investment funds, and local and state governments, but not on those held by small-scale personal investors.
We also need to ensure that the trading viability of pre-existing neighbouring businesses isn't undercut by social leasing tenants who might compete with them.
And we would have to determine a reasonable, equitable basis for determining which aspiring business ventures get access to social leasing, compared to those ones that miss out. These and numerous other questions are best done by governments consulting with the property sector before finalizing any frameworks.
Despite COVID, our cities, main streets and strip shopping centres remain the focus of much of modern life and our involvement as consumers.
We want to all be back out there, mixing with each other, and doing so in places that entertain, delight and intrigue us.
Whilst mainstream stores and malls provide predictability, we also want to occasionally discover experiences that are a little quirky and memorable.
Plenty of our entrepreneurs are willing to take the risk of providing that service; all they need is a low-risk environment in which to make the first such steps. If we want to revitalise our urban spaces now that we're free to use them again, social leasing is an idea we should seriously consider.
- Dr Michael Schaper is an Adjunct Professor with the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University, and was previously Deputy Chair of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission.