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  • Jai Morton

Curating experiences

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

– with co-founder of Venu, Yulia Nikitina

Yulia and I reconnect over a screen, her in Amsterdam sitting out the front of a café, me in Oslo from the couch. We’ve kept in touch here and there, sending the odd message or two, but it’s nice to see each other's faces, we say.

We met when I wrote some words for Yulia in 2020 for her lifestyle and work place Venu. It was pretty fresh into work-from-home times, and the pandemic. She was preparing to open Venu with co-founder Olga, a bike’s roll away from where I lived at the time, near Haarlemmerdijk.

Over the months, I watched the transformation of Venu as it opened its doors – a space for creatives, entrepreneurs, and quiet-book-reading-nook-seekers alike. I was especially curious to learn more about Yulia’s view on creating the atmosphere and experience of the space – something I knew her to be passionate about from its initial concept.

Change of pace

You’re originally from Russia. I’d love to know more about what brought you to Amsterdam?

First I moved from a small town in Russia by the Baltic Sea, to Moscow. And I wasn’t very happy there, I didn’t feel connected to the place. I wanted to move somewhere smaller, but that was still a capital city. And then there was a work opportunity in Amsterdam and I just jumped on it.

It felt like a small decision at the time, I didn’t think too much about it, so it’s difficult to say if I had clear reasons for moving from Russia. I just stepped out at Amsterdam Centraal and it felt right, I felt like ‘this is it’. And I thought ok I’ll move here and see how it goes. At the time I also already had a small baby with me, my daughter. But somehow, I felt things would be easier in Amsterdam.

I haven’t been to Russia. What would you say are the key differences between Amsterdam and Moscow?

Moscow has 16 million people, it’s like a whole country. It's huge. Long commutes, long lines of traffic, hours from one side of the city to the other. The scale of the city means you feel very small. You live in a huge apartment building and all around you are more huge apartment buildings, and you’re just one of millions. And the size of a neighbourhood in Moscow would be like half the size of Amsterdam.

It also felt like you had to be very good at planning your day. Sometimes you didn’t meet people for months because you weren’t in the same neighbourhood, or because you didn’t plan it properly. Not like in Amsterdam where you can just bike for 15 minutes and just make it. You'd never make it!

But on the other hand, it’s a very inspiring place. It’s fast-paced, things are just going there. If an idea pops up it grows massively – and fast. It’s very different in tempo. I remember when I first came to Amsterdam, after a few years I could only find one specialty coffee place and they didn’t know what a flat white was. And going back to Moscow it was like, they had 400 of those cafes. So, inspiring in the sense that things are always happening.

In Moscow, people just go for it and if it doesn’t work out that’s ok. We just try something else.

I guess in many metropolises it is similar, because competition is high, you know you have to work hard for your client, provide the best product and service. Because if you don’t, you lose your customer, they’re not coming back to you. While Amsterdam, it’s very low risk-taking and ideas are very thought think and plan a lot more before you start something.

In the same way, I think when you compare the two cities, in the Netherlands, people typically have the luxury to study and have a part time job, to prepare for their futures. In Moscow, the divide between rich and poor is huge, and many people have to start working right away, their parents can’t support them.

I really didn’t know about this intense, fast-paced way of life in Moscow. In contrast, when I moved from Brisbane, Australia, to me Amsterdam always felt it had a buzz, like things were happening. But I can see how your experience shines it in such a different light.

For me, I feel like there are less choices in Amsterdam. But many choices in Moscow could also be stressful. There is a lot of pressure there that doesn’t exist here in Amsterdam, which I think is good for mental health. I feel at peace here, more in control of my life, and more relaxed about being a parent.

What about from a business perspective? How does it differ? Were you hoping the pace in Amsterdam would be faster?

I like that it is clear, but I wish it would be more competitive creatively. I wish there were more new concepts.

What I see in Amsterdam is…people keeping it safe. If they see a good concept, they think let’s do the same or similar. It’s a very different mentality in Moscow. It’s like, this exists so let me do something different. I would like to see more of that.

Where you are excited to explore, like if we travel to New York or London, you’d go there, you’d have a huge variety of different...I don’t know…pastries in each coffee shop. While here it’s like, someone sees that a café has a certain pastry and they think, ‘well this must be a good pastry so I’ll have that at my café too.’ For me, that approach sort of stops evolution. Because the world is moving, changing, so I believe people need to take risks and try things out for themselves.

Again that’s really interesting that your perspective here is so different to mine. When I arrived in Amsterdam I felt like so much more was happening than in Brisbane. I felt I had more opportunities.

But I can also relate with things being the same café to café, for example. Now living in Oslo, Norway, I have noticed that the business mentality also feels quite slow and safe. I see the same cookie cutter café or franchise often. The independent cafes and ideas are there, but I feel I have to look harder to find them.

Images L-R by: Chris Dijksterhuis; Denis Hananein

Trying something different

So speaking of ideas, could you tell me a bit about Venu. When it began, what was your drive to create it? Especially after hearing your view: ‘if this exists, how can I create something different’?

So when I met my business partner Olga, we both shared our own experiences of Amsterdam. What she missed from the corporate world, and what I missed from my hospitality background. We both talked about the same thing from different angles. I was asking ‘how can I create a space that is not a café but not corporate?’, and she was thinking ‘what space can I create for work or creativity that is not the office?’

I didn’t want to create another café. I wanted to make a more flexible, multipurpose space. Smarter than a cafe. The desire mainly came from a place of personal experience and a need for something I couldn’t find.

We both agreed that we would also be jumping into a learning process, that we’d need to experiment to see how this place we created would reflect our idea. Even now, we still think and question. Are the zones right, is the concept working, does it make sense? And now we have more traffic, we are looking at that even more.

A key driver for us has also been to experiment. Not just in business but in life. I see life as a series of experiments, you know. You try something and you see that it works and you keep it with you. But if it doesn’t work, then you let it go and try something else. And you do these sort of short term experiments and you adjust. That makes my personal life as an entrepreneur much more interesting.

Image by: Chris Dijksterhuis

That’s super cool Yulia. Because I think so many people have the ideas, and say, ‘oh we’re missing this thing, maybe we should make it’ but they don’t follow through for one reason or another. It’s amazing that you and Olga could.

You took an exploratory outlook, you understood it would be a process, that you didn’t know everything. And I do see that crossover to everyday life. Embracing what is going to happen – or that you don’t know what is going to happen.

Yeah, I often work from the perspective of known and unknown quadrants. (Taken from a cognitive psychology tool developed in the 1950s called the Johari Window, the tool was eventually seen to be helpful to assess project or business risks too).

There are things we know, that we know we know. There are things we don’t know, and we know that we don’t know them. And if I am aware about it, it gives me the opportunity to learn about it if I want to. And the third quadrant is unknown knowns. So skills we probably have, like if I play violin, I could maybe also play the cello. And then there are unknown unknowns. Things we don’t know and are not aware of.

So whenever you face something you completely don’t know, it’s important to have a very honest look in the mirror and say: ‘do I need to know this, and if so how can I learn about it?’ You need to try to move from that square of unknown unknowns to known knowns.

So with Venu, there were many things we didn’t know. And I said: ‘what do we need to learn and how can we do it? 'Can we ask someone about it, can we buy research to learn about what we need to know, can we hire an expert?' And one thing we did know was that we both had relatively strong research skills, and with that, it would help us uncover unknowns. I think sometimes people find themselves in the unknown unknowns quadrant, and feel there’s too much work to move out of it.

You also started Venu during the pandemic, which I know had its challenges. And now, it seems foot traffic has picked up, and you have a melting pot of entrepreneurs, artists, creatives, and more coming through. Has Venu developed into the space you envisioned?

It actually developed much as we had hoped! It attracted the right people in time, and we didn’t invest much at all into advertising. We stayed pretty quiet because of the pandemic, which was also difficult as we didn't feel we could fully express ourselves and create a buzz.

But despite that, somehow people still found us and were sharing their experiences with us. It was word of mouth. Guests developed in a very trusting and safe way and some people started working together. It has become a hub to connect. We have a community of very like minded people at Venu.

I find it so exciting.. I say Venu is like ‘the silicon valley’ of the Netherlands. Because you have diverse, interesting people who have side projects and are thinking and creating and asking questions coming together. And as they talk with others and share they find more connections. I love those interactions.

So in the end, it is how we wanted it to be. Vibrant, buzzing, lots bubbling away under the surface. While still feeling serene and pleasant. And we’ve learnt more over time about how our concept can evolve. It’s a constant process of learning and improvement.

In the details

I know creating the right atmosphere at Venu is a big part of the concept. And that you're a very visual person – when you share a photo or curate a space, you put emphasis on small details. They obviously help to convey a certain feeling. Why is creating the mood and focusing on small details important?

I think actually for every place it is crucial. Because it doesn’t happen by itself. Of course people don’t always notice the small details, but once they do, when they think of where to go for their afternoon coffee meeting or focused work, I think they will think of Venu or another place that made an impression on them.

To me, the atmosphere we create shapes, in part, your emotions, and those stay with you after you visit a place.

At Venu I am always trying to gage the mood. For example in summer now, we changed some artwork, we added different candles and flowers. Each month I make a different playlist. Now I get that people are more in vacation than work mode, but that the transition from one to the other can be stressful. So it’s about bringing more of a relaxing energy to the space now, more than creating a focused, mellow vibe.

And this is one of the details that separates Venu from other spaces like offices that are are very stiff and similar. At Venu, there are people that have a true sense of hospitality, which creates a different feel. We want you to feel comfortable, not at home, but at home.

For example, when I edit the space I try to think of a different colour palette, or I buy flowers from a different florist. I try to introduce a different cake in the café. It’s important, when you create a space, to really think about these details. Just like when you hire an architect, they create a layout for you and if they are skilled enough it can be very convenient and functional, but to create a certain feel or energy… that’s different. I’m not an architect but I think I am quite good at curating the experience, considering the journey our customers have before, during and after.

It’s clear that Venu as a concept and a space is very considered, and I admire Yulia’s approach to getting there. It’s given me a fresh dose of courage and curiosity, and has me thinking outside the box in a way I feel I haven't in months.

Thank you Yulia –

Jai x

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