After my modest entrepreneurial adventure of restoring an old home into a boutique hotel, all I see are opportunities for more adventures at almost every corner of the oldest part of our beloved capital, the Medina. I am not a historian, but after pursuing a career in engineering, I decided to focus on what I love: people. I like history because history encapsulates plenty of people at various different times, civilisations and eras. I feel that such entrepreneurial adventures offer lovely opportunities to honour all sorts of people throughout history.

Looking at the different types of LinkedIn articles on“How to become an entrepreneur” and “How to become a successful public speaker”etc, I decided to do the same with“How to restore an old home into a business” for two simple reasons: I don’t have a lot of money to do more and I want to share the experience with my compatriots…  Yes, I said compatriots, because I want us to honour our ancestors and YES WE CAN.

“How to restore an old home into a business”addresses entrepreneurs, not investors. I am an entrepreneur with a bank account that does not qualify me to give advice to investors. Many people confuse the two, so I’ll start by explaining the difference: An investor is driven by financial return on investment while an entrepreneur is driven by passion. An investor has one million and invests 100 while an entrepreneur has 10 and builds a project that will need one million.

Here are three pieces of advice I would like to share with my fellow entrepreneurs interested in restoring an old home into a business:

Consider it an emotional investment
Just like starting any entrepreneurial adventure, it’s about everything but money; so do it because you are madly in love with it! Nothing can stop you; if you’re hesitant then the time to invest is not yet ripe!

Take your time when hunting around for an old house on sale, one day you will walk into a place that will take your breath away. You will feel in absolute harmony with the place. It will talk to you about all of the births, weddings, sad as well as happy moments that it accommodated, and in return, you will tell the space about all the dreams you have for its future. You will closely inspect its every corner and admire the work which was crafted by hundreds of Tunisian hands, giving the place its character.

You are now, in your mind, creating plans for many more Tunisian artisans to restore and enhance the beautiful work of their fellow artisans from a different time and civilisation. You must be able to feel the magic of the place and be willing to struggle with yourself to keep that magical feeling alive, because that will build your resilience to something not very magical at all; all the paper work of buying and selling an old house and finding the finances to own it!

Now the house is yours and you’re almost broke (perhaps even completely broke or in debt) and in serious need of as much money as possible to restore the place. Don’t let this get to you and kill the magical feeling! Just wake up every morning, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “one day it will all be over”.  Keep on going at your own speed and don’t let anyone determine the appropriate speed for you. The restoration will end eventually, be it in one day, one year, five or even ten years, you’re not in a hurry.

Keep your morning job, adopt a minimalistic life-style, keep your boss happy and keep your entrepreneurial adventure to yourself; nobody needs to know about it. Magical adventures, similar to blind love, require enormous emotional investment. Once those anti-risk taking people know about it, they will start throwing more negative energy at you, than you might be able to handle.

Restoring an old home is a big emotional investment, which requires tremendous self-discipline and continuous self-control. Just enjoy the magical transformation of the piece of history that is now yours and make it happen one step at a time.

Beyond Profit business:
The first time you stepped foot in the space, you could feel the magic, now the restoration is finished and the magic you felt slowly grows into a feeling of miracle. When you began restoring the space, it felt like it would be impossible to complete. Now miraculously it’s done!

Ok, now you might be beyond broke, the little palace is expensive to maintain, and you are starting a business without a business plan…what type of business plan could you write? Not even Google can help you find an exciting project! It’s all right, you own a piece of national legacy and you heroically restored it into a modern building while respecting the architectural style of its foundations. UNESCO is probably too busy, but I’m sure if they found out about you, they would consider you a microscopic national hero.

Being an entrepreneur means there is no such thing as reaching a destination or a goal. You’re constantly confronted with new challenges and your challenge now is to turn the space into a creative and profitable business. The beautiful place could become one of many things the Medina lacks and attract future dwellers looking for an open door, welcoming them to the Medina’s narrow and captivating alleys.

So you launch the business and suddenly your secret is out. Now you’re ready to expose your big financial and emotional investment to the whole world. Some visitors will instantly fall in love with it and feel its magic but there will always be those who ask you: How is the return on investment? Is this type of business profitable? Isn’t it a lot of work for little income?

Of course, business profitability is relative.Those who can’t speak to buildings, exchange stories with the space, and feel the magic, probably won’t be able to see beyond financial profit. So the question, “How profitable is your business”, is a hard one to answer, because those who don’t understand will give you the “You’re a loser” look. But you know deep inside that this business’ significance goes beyond profit. It brings new life into a space that you’ve saved, it assures the continuity of the Medina’s legacy by creating jobs and shared economy, thereby preserving livelihoods.
Enabling the building to create an income for itself, it continues to write new pages of its long story…
You’ve empowered a space and at the same time empowered the community it’s part of.

Focus on the legacy of the place:
Restoration of the building is over and business is rolling; time for the hard work to begin. Since you’re an entrepreneur, this is the exciting part. You have brought life to a little piece of history; your mission now is to turn it into something sustainable, contemporary, fun and inspiring, that will, through modesty, make your compatriots proud and foreigners in love with our culture.

As Arabs say, “If it lasted to others, it wouldn’t be yours today”.  Remember, you’re passing by in history. The piece of history that is now yours, belongs to you for only a small percentage of its lifetime, for it belongs to the nation’s history more than it does to yours. You’re a passer by in time, doing your part during your passage. That, in itself, is a big mission. Do it as best as you can because although your contribution may be minor, it has an important impact on the legacy of our historical cities. Keep the magic alive so that others can feel the legacy!

Leila Ben-Gacem

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