What's the Future of Small Business in New York City?
New York City is home to more than 200,000 small businesses. The entrepreneurs behind them have a lot riding on the mayoral election in November.
But the first stop is the primary election on September 10--and all eyes are on the Democratic primary. If no one among the six candidates receives 40 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will compete in a runoff election on October 1. In fact, a run-off is highly likely.
The election comes after a dozen years under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, himself an entrepreneur and businessman, and a friend to Wall Street and the private sector in general. In recent years, Bloomberg has ushered in plenty of positive feelings, and perhaps an actual boost in tech entrepreneurship, by creating an office of NYC Digital, and, through the New York City Economic Development Corporation, creating NYC Tech Talent Draft, NYC Next Idea, and NYC Venture Fellows.
A sure sign the mayor is proud of his accomplishments in this area is the skepticism in the his office as to whether another candidate can stack up.
Nor are the mayor's own people alone in feeling he has set a very high bar. "It's clear that we're unlikely to have another mayor that has the intuitive knowledge of business and the challenges facing entrepreneurs that Mayor Bloomberg has," Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group, told the Wall Street Journal.
But in this election, entrepreneurship has nearly reached the status of a hot-button word, as New York City is blossoming with start-ups and groundwork is laid for new tech campuses. And a couple of the mayoral candidates are entrepreneurs themselves: John Catsimatidis, a Republican billionaire, is best known for founding the Gristedes grocery store chain, though that venture is now only a tiny slice of his diverse business portfolio (which includes a corporate-jet company and an oil refining venture). Jack Hidary, a newcomer to the race who is running as an independent candidate, founded along with his brother a company called EarthWeb, which provided tutorials and resource directories to the tech community. He took the company public in 1999.
We decided to see for ourselves how the others stack up. Of nine Democratic candidates, Inc. contacted the five who have polled highest all year. All agreed to be interviewed on their plans for nurturing entrepreneurship, the tech sector, and the state of small business in New York City, and I spoke with each of them. The exception was former congressman Anthony Weiner, whose representative ceased responding to emails. You can find links to the full transcripts of the interviews at the bottom of this page.
The most significant take-away after reviewing all of the interviews is that each of the candidates--City Council speaker Christine Quinn, New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio, former New York City comptroller Bill Thompson, and current New York City comptroller John Liu--wants to ease ticketing and smooth regulatory hurdles for small businesses in New York City.
Liu, the son of immigrants whose mother started a small grocery store in the borough of Queens, said as mayor he would reduce the tax burden on small-business owners, help small-business owners navigate the bureaucracy it takes to start-up, and end what he called regulatory "ticket-blitzes" that come out of routine city inspections.
During his teenage years putting in hours at the family store in Queens, he said he learned that "it was never fun, it was never good, hearing anything from the city. It was always was bad news when you heard from the city. And that shouldn't be the case."
De Blasio spoke in similar terms, and also emphasized that access to credit for small businesses should be a priority for the city. "A lot of our subsidies are still going to large corporations, with limited positive results for the city," he told me. "I'd like to alter that and focus on creating a revolving loan fund for small business that's sponsored by the city. That would allow a lot of our small businesses to grow and employ more people."
De Blasio also said that starting up shouldn't be a regulatory maelstrom for a restaurant or corner store, whose owners often have to deal with multiple visits from inspectors from a handful of city agencies. He nodded to the current administration's experiments in streamlining the process, but advocated creating a truly "one-stop approach."
"That should be something the city gets involved with and has a single point of contact and helps each business through the process," he says.
Quinn suggested a similar all-in-one-day inspections approach, and also stressed that the more than 40,000 immigrant-run businesses in New York City deserve its attention.
"I'm going to make sure and I'm going to put an initiative in place when I am mayor that owners of businesses have an inspector sent out who speaks their language as well as English," she says.
She also stressed the importance of the growth of the technology sector in New York City, and suggested turning the City University of New York into a pipeline to good-paying technology jobs for graduates. De Blasio suggested the same thing, and also proposed creating high-tech pockets for start-ups in each of the five boroughs, to spread the benefits of Silicon Alley around the city.
Thompson, too, brought up the importance of fostering multiple tech hubs throughout the metropolitan area.
"One of the ideas that I put forward, it was looking to create synergies in other areas, creating incubator spaces, and looking at them as sort of high-tech empowerment zones, one in each borough," he told me. "Creating that opportunity--whether it's multiple buildings or an area located within a neighborhood with access to transportation--one in each borough, and create that access to office space, for that incubator space for people to use to help grow companies."
As for their own personal tech skills, none of the candidates--perhaps in part due to Weiner's scandals--admitted to posting their own tweets or other social media, though several said they contributed ideas to their campaign teams for posting online. Liu joked: "No, I don't do my own social media, nor do I take pictures of myself."
Their favorite apps include Shazam, Pandora, the MLB app, and StumbleUpon. (Yes, you'll have to read the interviews to find out who likes which.)
I also asked each candidate, If you were to start a business in New York, what that would it look like? De Blasio, a huge baseball fan, said he'd start a batting-cage business so little leaguers had more options for practicing. Thompson said he'd start-up in the municipal finance sector, where he has managerial experience. Quinn said she'd dive into tech, starting a website for helping complete outfit selections--say you can't figure out what kind of shirt to wear under a particular suit. Just one candidate, Liu, said he wouldn't be interested. "I'd be more inclined to start a non-profit organization," he said.
Leadership Pointers From the New York City Mayoral Candidates
Full Interview: Bill de Blasio
Full Interview: John Liu
Full Interview: Bill Thompson
Full Interview: Christine Quinn
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.