What's the future of tech and entrepreneurship in New York City? Here's what Public Advocate Bill de Blasio tells Inc. he'd like to accomplish.
It's Election Day in New York City. The top office on the ballot, New York City Mayor, is one that's outcome, by all estimates, seems extremely likely to be the election of Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio. He's currently public advocate of New York City and is a resident of Brooklyn, New York, who's become known as the "99 percent candidate" for his advocacy of low-income housing, increasing benefits for low-wage workers, and moving away from giving tax breaks to large corporations in favor of helping the smallest business. Most recently, he's attracted donations from plenty of San Francisco tech founders and venture capitalists, who have a lot riding on the next four years.
New York City is home to tens of thousands of small, family-owned, and immigrant-owned businesses that sometimes struggle to keep up with complex regulations and taxes in one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to do business. A year after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, these businesses also have questions about the role of government in helping them through disaster--in addition to helping them thrive and grow on sunnier days. The city is also in the midst of a tech start-up boom. It's home to an increasing number of venture-capital firms, co-working spaces, and business incubators.
I spoke with de Blasio this fall, before the primary--and we thought it was high time to republish the interview that follows (which has been edited and condensed, and was originally published on August 26, 2013). Here's where the (very likely) future mayor of New York stands on the issues that affect small business.
What is the current state of small business in New York City? What do you want to change about it?
I think small business is struggling in New York City. It's a fantastic market, it's a very appealing market, there's lots of opportunity, at the same time it's a very difficult place to build a small business. I think that some of the policies of the Bloomberg administration in terms of a very aggressive approach to enforcement, and a very arbitrary approach to inspections and fines, have really negatively affected people all over the city, particularly in the outer boroughs.
And that and the absence of real facilitation from the city government in terms of small business start-ups, with a few exceptions--there have been some promising exceptions lately--but writ large, you know, the city is sort of quick to fine; slow to help. There's been very low response to real pressing needs of small business, like access to credit, that got largely paralyzed during the economic crisis. And one of my chief proposals I'm focusing on is really changing the way we do subsidies. A lot of our subsidies are still going to large corporations, with limited positive results for the city, 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.
What specifically can we do in New York to decrease the bureaucracy one must go through to get started, licensing, inspections, etc.? And should we?
I think we can develop more of the one-stop approach. There have been a few experiments with that that have been very promising, even at the end of the Bloomberg years. For a long time, I don't think the Bloomberg administration did much to change the balkanization of permitting in this city, but there have been a few experiments lately that I want to build on that to help small businesses deal with one person, one agency, and have that agency run interference with the others.
For example, when you open a business there are some approvals you need from the buildings department, some you need from the fire department, and you often get contradictory messages from the different departments and it's really hard to schedule them to come and do their inspections. We need to centralize that and make it simpler for small businesses to open up. That should be something the city gets involved with and has a single point of contact and helps each business through the process. And we should be able to do that in multiple languages, too. We are the ultimate international city; we should be able to facilitate in the languages people speak because we want their business open sooner rather than later, because we want the jobs, we want the revenue. So that's the direction I want to take us in.
How important is the burgeoning tech start-up scene in New York City? Do you think there are changes that need to be made to Silicon Alley?
First of all, I think the tech industry is very, very important to us. We're last I checked, pushing on toward 100,000 employed in the industry. The big growth in the last few years is multiplied by the fact that I think for every tech job created there are almost four non-tech jobs that are created. So, this is very, very important to the future of the city.
We have immense competitive advantages here, we are the capital of content in the world, and certainly the United States. Obviously Google and Yahoo made their investments here, so I think we have a lot more potential here. I think the way to address the question you raised is that we have to build tech hubs in each of the boroughs. What's happening in Downtown Brooklyn is very promising, and in DUMBO. But now let's talk about Long Island City and the surrounding areas, which I think offer a great opportunity and in close proximity to Roosevelt island and the Cornell Tech campus. There are other locations in the Bronx and Staten Island too, or deeper into Queens or Brooklyn that can also be developed.
I think another piece of the equation is the talent base that's needed. And folks in the industry have talked to me about their tremendous appreciation that mayor Bloomberg and the city created the Applied Science Center. And I've often been a critic of Bloomberg, but that's something where I agree with him 100 percent and I think it's a great step forward for this city. But let's be clear; it's one piece of the equation. But beyond that, the next frontier is the city university system. That's what a lot of folk in tech said to me would be the real difference-maker, both in terms of speed with which CUNY could graduate people who are ready to go into jobs right now, and just the sheer volume of people that could be handled at CUNY rather than Cornell. There are a lot of people who grew up in New York City, who would love to get those tech jobs, need the additional training, and could use some help with financial aid. The city can play a powerful role in addressing that.
There are hundreds of small businesses that have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. How would you fix or nurture disaster preparedness?
In terms of planning for the future, as someone who is not afraid to criticize Mayor Bloomberg, I think his plan for dealing with the future and potential climate challenges is a very good plan, I by and large agree with it. What it's, I think, missing, is the grassroots element. There are community organizations and volunteer groups and faith-based organizations all looking to help, and they are, in a lot of ways, quicker and more agile and more creative than government agencies--and certainly that was true in the days immediately following Sandy. The grassroots response was much faster and stronger than a lot of the government agencies.
How would you propose strengthening response, then?
Well, training together. Certainly, training community groups and individuals and faith-based groups. We've been preparing for these things, but training together is important and having some access to resources in the event of an emergency is important. For example a lot of non-profits that were really crucial to recovery and response couldn't get fuel. They were treated as different than other first-responders, even though they were doing, essentially, similar work. I think it's about training together and having resources in a time of crisis. More of a team approach rather than two ships passing in the night.
Have you ever started a business?
No I have not, but let me say that running a campaign is shockingly similar to running a small business. People believe it is one of the great entrepreneurial enterprises, you start with nothing, and you need to find backers and investors and there's no guarantee of victory, and you walk the tightrope, so I think I can relate.
How would the folks on your campaign describe you as a boss?
I'd let them speak for themselves, but what I believe is true is that I'm as a boss very conscientious, meaning I'm detail oriented, and I try to hold myself and everyone else to a high standard, and I think I'm demanding in a hopefully righteous manner. I mean, I think, look, this is very serious work we do and I try to ask of everyone and myself the pursuit of a very high standard. And beyond that I really thing that people have to listen to each other and listen to the people we serve. I think a lot of the best ideas come from the grassroots, I'm someone who does not like a bunker mentality and does not like groupthink. I struggle to keep some objectivity and some flow of new ideas and to keep close to the grassroots. I think I've been able to attract fantastic talent over the years without having a whole lot to pay them and I hope that's because, first, people who believe in the progressive values I have and the changes we want to make in the city and second, the kind of people attracted to an organization that works real hard, and is hard-charging, high-volumes, high-quality--they are a special breed who chooses to be part of my campaign.
How are your tech skills? What sort of apps do you like? Do you do your own social media?
I'd say, imperfect. My Blackberry is pretty much it. I tweet sometimes personally, other times my team does it. I love the MLB app, because I'm a pretty obsessed baseball fan. I don't use a whole lot of others much. Honestly, my life is pretty narrow in terms of the work I do each day. I am pretty limited, but that does not keep me from understanding how crucial the tech industry is to our future and how fundamental tech is to every aspect of life.
What has running a campaign taught you about productivity? Any tips?
It's all a matter of prioritizing. There are a lot of different demands on the campaign trail, but what matters most is that you connect with voters and take the time to really hear their concerns. If at the end of the day I've done that and I have time for my family, it's been a good day.
If you were to start a business in New York, what would be useful to you or the community?
There's a lack of batting cages in New York City. There's a few that I have frequented over the years and they immediately fill up. The Little League movement is booming in New York City, it's like growing all the time, we hardly have enough space to accommodate everyone. Batting cages are crucial to the nurturing of little leaguers, and that's what I would do. That's be a fun career.