Free space
2015-01-19 | Text: Aydar Fahrutdinov | Photo ©: Ziferblat’s archive, Masson / shutterstock.com | 6494

The original idea of creating a free public space in which each guest felt at home has turned into a successful business project. Today this network of spaces includes several cities in Russia, Kiev, and London. Soon New York will join the list. We talked with Ivan Meetin, the man who not only founded, but also originated the concept for Ziferblat [Russian for “clock face”].

 

– Ivan, could you tell us what your project is and how it came to be?

The first Ziferblat made its appearance in spring 2011, and was a continuation of a previous project, Dom na dereve [“Treehouse”]. Good people started gathering in a small attic rented by enthusiasts. Guests had the right to use a coffee maker, pour themselves a cup of tea, bring in food – all for free. You could really do anything you wanted to – play the piano, write books and read poetry, make new friends, propose ideas or events… The idea was to create a place where everyone could feel comfortable, as if they were visiting a good friend, where they could be open to the place and to the people in it, have the opportunity fulfill their potential to an extent – to a much greater extent than they would in a café or a restaurant. Paying for it was completely voluntary – there was a suitcase by the entrance where people could leave as much as they saw fit. With that form of payment it was if we were suggesting that everyone split the cost of keeping that place in existence. Rent was expensive, but Dom na dereve did not lose money and developed rapidly. Soon it became so popular that it couldn’t hold everyone who wanted to come, so we decided that we needed to go further, and we found another place. The rent was just as high, and we even began doubting that anything would come of the place. That’s why the relationship between the guest and the new place was formalized. As a joke we announced that now you could pay a ruble for every minute you spent there. That’s how Ziferblat came to be and how the rate was set.

 

– The desire to create a place like that couldn’t have come out of nowhere? Was it determined by your inner motives? Could you say what influenced its formation?

Yes, my mind has been formed under the influence of very many things that have happened in my life. I was lucky to have been born in a family where books had always been everywhere, and since childhood I’ve always read a lot. I was lucky to have started traveling abroad as a child because my grandparents moved to Germany when I was eight. I was lucky to have seen the Soviet era at a time when I was capable of reflection. I remember that period well, and it gives me a lot of nostalgic feelings – not for the political regime, of course, but for certain things that were lost later, in the years of rampant capitalism.

I was lucky, too, to have studied at a film school in Moscow. In 1999 when the age of New Russians, mafia cars, and criminal showdowns had just ended, there still weren’t any Ziferblats or refined cafes at all, of course, and on the whole public space in Russia was, aesthetically-speaking, a pitiful sight. The film school, though, had a completely different atmosphere that was close to what we saw in TV shows about American schools, where everyone sits on the floor, puts their desks however they like, where there’s a cool cafeteria and a big screening room for movies. At film school even the food was awesome. Of course, an experience like that was very useful and it was probably a desire to get closer to it that attracted me to film school, and not the hypothetical possibility of working in film. Film school was where I found a new way of relating to people and a new, more open aesthetic, and that has helped a lot in life. To a certain extent film school had a subconscious effect on Ziferblat too, but that’s only one component of the mix. I could spend a long time counting off everything I have participated in, everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve seen. The human brain is a strange mechanism – it takes in completely random things that someone else might not even notice, but that you remember for a lifetime, even though the two of you were both at the same place.

 

– How do you define the format of your establishment?

I don’t like definitions in general, because they pigeon-hole us. But, as a sort of approximation, we call our places “free spaces”, because you’re free here as to what you can do, in comparison with other public places. I compare Ziferblat with social networks, with the difference that ours exists in real life. There isn’t one Ziferblat – there are already eleven of them, and they all work together wonderfully. By the way, people are starting to get to know new cities by first going to a Ziferblat. For instance, many people who have just moved to London come into our Ziferblat so they can make their first new friends. Ziferblat is a great place to make friends and even start projects with them. And I don’t mean just people from Russia. In London we don’t have a single employee who speaks Russian. I want to fix that, by the way.

– The people you see in Ziferblat aren’t typical Russians. They’re a special category of people. How does the “selection process” happen?

I think, most of all, the establishment’s very format predetermines the people who come in. First of all, everything there is saturated with a refined atmosphere. People appreciate that and that’s why they like to come here rather than to places that don’t have that. Second, its history of openness attracts a certain type of person who is ready to be open. Every place gives signals through its interior design, for instance, or through how people work there. It attracts people who are able to pick up these signals.

– How did you plan everything at the very beginning?

I didn’t really plan anything consciously. I just created a place where I myself could feel comfortable, the sort of place I dreamed about when I was young. There’s furniture, antiques, old photographs, a piano. And the password to the Wi-Fi is “all you need is love.”

Now we regularly have various events – lectures, concerts, exhibitions, meetings, classes. They’re all connected either with culture or the opportunity to learn something new. For example, someone might share an experience – how they rode around the world on a bicycle. We have classes in drawing, languages. Not long ago we had drum classes. People come to events based on their interests.

 

– Do you have any goal in mind for the number of Ziferblats?

Ziferblats should appear where people have an interest in them. We don’t just open them up and own them ourselves – in each city we have a partner who has put money and effort into the location. I’m interested in going where there’s a partner. But, overall, Ziferblat can probably exist in any city and in any format.

I don’t have a rough estimate for the total number of Ziferblats that will appear, but I think at some point in the future the number will approach one thousand world-wide.

– How did the standard for setting up a Ziferblat form? What requirements did you put before the design group?

My friends and I began with our own preferences. If we saw that a certain format was successful, then we formalized that experience. That’s why we have principles we’ve worked out that every newly-opened Ziferblat has to keep to. However, it’s important to us that we give the creators of each Ziferblat some freedom, and that we give some freedom to the people who work for us and visit us as guests. That’s why, except for the conception of a single network, we always welcome discussion. Each Ziferblat has its own flavor, and there are differences in the people who come in, in the management, in the relationships within the team. Even if one person enters or leaves the team, that can have a big effect on what happens.

– But if you were to just compare the Ziferblats in, say, Kazan and St. Petersburg. What makes them different or special?

In St. Petersburg we have two Ziferblats – one is “Ziferblat”, and the other is “Ziferburg.” Ziferburg is a made-up city where we even built some houses. It was a unique theatrical project, and in keeping with that a lot of theatre, music, and clown acts perform there. That creates a certain type of audience that likes that aesthetic. It attracts people who work in physical theatre, clowning, and the like. There isn’t that sort of focus in Kazan, and I can’t say that the backbone of that local following is made up of people who necessarily work with art of some sort. People go there to just relax, have a good time, but more events take place there than just about anywhere else. In Kazan they really like board games, and there are quite a few people who work with computers. There are more noisy groups of friends who come in to throw a birthday party, and things like that. In other words, the aesthetic is a little different than it is in St. Petersburg.

 

– London is full of all kinds of places to go – anything connected with art: museums, parks… There’s a lot of everything. Nevertheless, you were able to successfully find your own niche there.

The percentage of people who come to Ziferblat for the events varies from 3% to 20%. The other 80% are people who come in for the place itself. Of course, there’s a lot to do in London – people are torn between everything they can take part in. There are thousands of cozy cafes with a nice atmosphere and good food – there really are plenty of places to go. But there isn’t any other place like Ziferblat in London – there’s no place where you’re not constantly attended to by a waiter, where you don’t need to order something every half-hour. That’s why people go to London, just like they do everywhere else.

At first I didn’t want to create a place for events. I wanted to create a comfortable place to go to and do something, meet new people, meet with people you already know… Even if events do take place there, Ziferblat is always open for people to simply come in and hang out.

– Members-only social clubs are very popular in England. I get the impression that you have created the same kind of club, only you’ve made it open to everyone.

I like that analogy. If you look at how those clubs appeared, then it’s clear anything can be interesting as it’s just being born. Then it ages, becomes more formal, gets boring, and in the end disappears. For instance, the café appeared in England in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, I think, when they brought in a new drink called coffee. Back then it was something like Ziferblat, where people gathered to discuss the morning news and drink coffee while they did it. Exactly the same free-form socializing held sway there. People went there for that. By formalizing the format, the owners of coffee houses started to strive for greater economic efficiency, which is how what we now call the traditional café appeared. In a traditional café someone in a uniform waits on you, and you sit there, oblivious to everyone and everything around you, except for your own little table. Even if you look at Roman taverns, which also began in England, in the first century, you’ll see that at first those were places where a traveler could rest during his travels along the Roman roads that cut across England: travelers met there, socialized, and could spend the night before going on their way. If you look at it this way, then everything we’re doing is a return to the café’s true nature. I think that if this format lives on for another hundred or two hundred years, then eventually it will turn into something faceless, because everything in history tends toward simplification, formalization, technical efficiency. We’re already seeing that. We have a lot of clones who have ripped off our concept and call themselves anti-cafes. We have created a new market, and there are already people who want a piece of the pie. They already have waiters with name tags running around, they’re already selling food, you can drink there… I don’t understand why you should even do something like that. A café format for things like that is more convenient and more honest.

 

– Don’t things like that make you want to become more closed-off, like those English clubs we talked about earlier?

That would bring an end to everything. It’s important for us that new people are always coming in. Our following likes to be with other people like themselves – people who are open to other people and their experiences. If you close off your following, weed some people out, and leave only one type of person – things will quickly turn into a quagmire where everything is very boring.

There are all kinds of people, after all, and that’s very important, because everyone has something they can teach us. I don’t feel that I’m in any way better than someone who hasn’t read Chekhov, for example. Maybe they didn’t get into literature and good music in their childhood, but then again it’s a lot easier to get along with them than with an over-refined artist who imagines that he’ll wake up famous tomorrow. On the other hand, I know that with some people, even though that person is extremely erudite, if you take him on as a partner or colleague, you’ll only ruin your friendship.

– Do children go to Ziferblat?

We often have children come in, but I can’t say that they make up a sizeable proportion of our guests. We don’t really do anything to attract them in particular.

– Do you require any particular qualities in the people who work for you? Do you feel a need for a certain level of culture and learning?

As for the managers, then they really do have to be educated and know their stuff when it comes to world culture. They have to be able to see little things that other people don’t. What’s strange is that most people who feel at ease somewhere don’t know why they feel that way. A manager has to understand something like that.

As for the assistants, they are, in the first place, much younger than the managers, and, second, we don’t really have any requirements that they have to meet; except for a willingness to learn about the world around them, well and openness, most of all.

 

– Ivan, what does this project mean to you personally? It began as one of your ideas, and you’re the one who’s developing it. Does that mean that at some point you will finish the project and leave it?

I will, of course, always be with this project until it ends or I do. However, I would like to free myself from some of the daily tasks that I do now, so that I can in ten or fifteen years, roughly speaking, carry out a huge number of projects that I already have in mind. I took this job on, and I feel responsible for it. I can’t begin something new at the expense of Ziferblat. Sometimes that depresses me – I get new ideas every day, but I just don’t have the time for them.

These ideas are now filed away. Ziferblat, by the way, will be a very good instrument for realizing these ideas in the future, and its following could become their following. That’s why one of the things I want is to get to a point where I can concentrate on creating new projects within Ziferblat. It’s just that now things are developing so fast all my time is taken up by the internal work of maintaining quality and setting up the structures to do it. Once I set up the process of opening new locations without my personal involvement, I’ll be glad to take on new projects, and Ziferblat’s following will take part in them.

Let’s say that I launch a computer game and tell the 150000 people following Ziferblat on social networking sites and another 150000 people who don’t follow it. I realize that I have the clout to make each of them download it at least once. In the same way, if I suggest we build some sort of city, then participants in our network will come and help make that happen. If I propose some volunteer project, then I know where to get people for it. I have a group of people that I can inform. People are a resource that Ziferblat gives. That’s how I can realize projects through Ziferblat.

– Did you see that possibility right away, or did you recognize it later?

No, not right away. Dom na dereve opened as a place that might have operated at a loss but, if I had to, I was ready to seek sponsors each month who would pay the rent. But the project never lost money. When Ziferblat was getting started, I knew that it might in the long term be more profitable than Dom na dereve, but I realized that there was a high probability that I would have to go and look for money to keep the place in existence. I didn’t expect the results I got and had no intention of making a network, but the idea took off. We got showered with offers to create similar spaces in other locations, and the clones that appeared encouraged us to open new Ziferblats. In the end I had to change a lot psychologically, because I had thought that for the entire length of the project – which I thought would be a few years – I would just have to greet guests and pour them tea. At the time I didn’t see myself as a businessman owning a chain of locations – much less a set of locations all over the world. There was a long, painful period because of that, when I had to learn how to delegate responsibility, how to work as part of a team, how to cut down on expenses, etc. I’m still learning.

I would like to turn entrepreneurship into an art – perhaps into a new form of art – because now civilization gives dreamers like me an opportunity to make their way in business. We didn’t have that opportunity 200 years ago. Some crazy projects can only find an audience due to their being more people numerically. You can open up something crazy in some crazy corner of the world, and it will work. Even if I opened an enormous bookstore with intellectual, refined, high-quality literature in the middle of the Nevadan desert, I’m sure that I could make the project profitable from an entrepreneurial point of view, and not only a crazy piece of performance art. Perhaps 21st-century art will end up being a combination of the the crazy, the social, and the entrepreneurial.


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