New York City is 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. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, an entrepreneur himself, has helped herald in this era 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. New York City is also home to hundreds 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. Nearly 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. There's a lot at stake for the future of small business in this upcoming mayoral election. So over the past two weeks, I have interviewed four candidates running in the Democratic primary election for Mayor of New York City. Here's the transcript of an interview with former New York City comptroller Bill Thompson, lightly edited and slightly condensed. (Links to additional candidate interviews are below.)
What is the current state of small business in New York City? And what do you want to change about it?
New York City is saying the right things entrepreneurship, but isn't doing the right things about it. Small businesses are left feeling under siege.
What would you do to fix that?
The focus should be on creating safety and paying attention to regulations. It should not be about revenue-generation. What we've seen is a lot of quotas have been established and instead of fining people--an inspector comes into a store and sees something is wrong and hands out a ticket that has a monetary fine attached to it--instead of that, give the person a warning. Let them have the opportunity to cure that violation without that costing them money. And I also think we have to make sure inspectors are trained well because we're seeing inconsistencies. So one inspector comes in and sees three things wrong, and gives them a ticket; that costs people money. Another inspector comes back and finds three other things wrong--I think there's a problem with that. I think creating consistency; letting people understand that they're there to make sure there's a situation that's safe and healthy, not just there to generate revenue for the city. Right now people believe they're in a no-win situation.
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?
It is first making sure that we're out there explaining the rules first to people. If you look at a lot of the immigrant communities, that has become difficult. A lot of people don't understand the rules. I think it is about providing the information, we could do online training and online certification. That would make sense. And it could be language-appropriate, which means online makes even more sense. Second, we should eliminating quotas. Do not send inspectors out with the expectation that a certain number of violations generate a certain amount of revenue. What you see now in these situations, even the administrative judges who are there to here these cases are basically told to rule in favor of the city and against businesses, and if they are not, they are reassigned or their hours are cut down. I think we need to also make sure our inspectors have the appropriate training and know what to look for. So that there is consistency in what happens. And eliminating that first-time violation; give people a chance to remedy the situation before you hit them with a ticket.
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?
I think you want to keep encouraging it, but I think you also have to create other opportunity, and grow that sector. 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. 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. Doing it in all five boroughs will help keep rents down, and control that situation, and then people also know that they are going to have other entrepreneurs in the tech sector around them, and creating those synergies in multiple hubs in the city could be valuable.
And then in addition, one of the other things I've thought about in the tech start-ups, is incentive for someone to stay in their community for three years. We can create grants and incentives to stay and to grow.
There are hundreds of small businesses that have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. How would you fix or nurture disaster preparedness?
I think it is getting our office of small-business services out there earlier. What neighborhoods could be impacted? Providing information to them. Helping them look ahead of time to what some of the problems could be. Then if disaster does strike, getting out there quickly, providing support, providing insurance support, a number of things that you can do as well as I think we have to provide and start to look, as we are starting to harden the infrastructure of the city, at electric, to make sure that doesn't go out in the future. Where are generators located, look at that.
I think it's getting out there ahead of time and working with our small businesses, providing information, giving them places to go, working with them on insurance, giving them information on that, pointing them in the right direction, and then after the fact, being right out there with them, helping them get back on their feet quickly.
Have you ever started a business?
I have not. Have I worked in a business? Yes. I was the chief administrative officer at a municipal finance firm. It's a small business. I just left there in March, and I had been there since April of 2010. I had the experience working at another municipal finance firm as a consultant in the 1990s.
How would folks on your campaign describe you as a boss?
I would say as a boss I'm fair. I don't expect people to work harder than I do. So I try and set that example in working hard. But at the same time fair. And I think that the other thing that people have learned is that they have input. That's not just on the campaign, I think campaigns are a little different than normal situations, but when I was comptroller in the city of New York, people would definitely describe me as fair. I always had an open-door policy, and I also wanted to hear their opinions. You always want to have people smarter than you around you.
How are your tech skills? What sort of apps do you like? Do you do your own social media?
I don't do most of my social media, but I will call in and have other people tweet things out for me. A lot of it does come from me--a lot are recommendations, I'll say, let's put this and this and this and this. And different apps--I look at different political sites at times. If you're in the car listening to the radio, Shazam is helpful. But during a campaign a lot of what you're looking at are political sites.
What has running a campaign taught you about productivity? Any tips?
It's hard when you're going all the time to be able to say what would make you more productive! But on a campaign, you have to be able to multitask. You have to be able to do three and four things at the same time. You're on, you're on the phone, while you're reading and getting ready for the next reading and next presentation. You've got to be able to multitask.
If you were to start a business in New York City, what would it be?
I think the best thing when you look at it is to settle on the area and do a good business plan. It's best to understand the marketplace before you get out there--no matter what that marketplace is. That's the best thing. And laying that financing plan out there first. Make sure you're out there talking to family, friends, anyone to help you get on your way. Talking to everybody. If I did it would probably be looking at the municipal finance sector. That's where I've spent some time, and I would look at that.