What's the future of small business in New York City? Here's the vision City Council president Christine Quinn lays out.
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 heralded 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 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. 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 sunny 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 New York City Council president Christine Quinn, lightly edited and slightly condensed. (Scroll to end for links to additional candidate interviews.)
What is the current state of small business in New York City? What do you want to change about it?
The state of small business is certainly not what I want it to be right now. I want the city to embrace the kind of customer-service outlook that every business has to embrace in how we conduct our work with small businesses. I want the city to be helping small businesses, not getting in their way.
I also want the city to stop all the excessive fining and ticketing that is going on on a regular basis as it relates to small businesses across the city. And I think that's something that we can accomplish. I know that when I'm mayor, and as I'm already the speaker, we've already begun to do that, we've begun to do that through legislation that moves first-time violations to warnings; and we're passing legislation next month that will reduce fines on restaurants. A new small-business acceleration team has helped reduce the start-up time for small restaurants by three months.
Tell me more about that small-business acceleration team.
Well we started the first pilot around restaurants, but it's a model that we can use for any industry. It helps you streamline inspection that you need to start-up, to try to get all of those agencies there on the same day; that speeds them up. Having them there on the same day avoids if there's contradictions between one agency and another, they can address that. And also the city being hands-on available, so if a restaurant or a small business has a question about paperwork or whatnot, they are able to answer it.
How big of a role should the city government play in fostering immigrant-owned businesses.
I think it's really important to realize that small businesses are often the portal for immigrants into the New York City economy. I think we have something like 40,000 small businesses that are immigrant-run in New York. So 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. This way things will be clearer and there won't be confusion or unnecessary tickets.
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?
We want to embrace the potential of the tech sector. And we want to learn from the experience of other cities. The one other thing I want to do as it relates to the tech sector is turn the City University of New York into a pipeline for those tech jobs. There is no reason they should only be going to the folks who go to graduate from Cornell-Techneon. I've already begun to put pilot programs in place that give CUNY grads opportunities to get good tech jobs. We should expand on that so that New Yorkers are getting those jobs, because those jobs are probably one of the biggest 21st Century pathways into the middle class.
Now we need to recognize that certainly as a result of tech, but even beyond that, housing prices and rent in New York is unaffordable. We need to be sure we are doing something about that as the government. That's why as mayor I will build 40,000 new middle-income housing units across the city, moderate and middle-income units to help expand the options out there for middle-class folks. I'm also going to go to Albany and fight like crazy to get power of the rent laws given to the city of New York, so we can strengthen rent stabilization, because that really is a way to get rents down and make apartments more affordable.
There are hundreds of small businesses that have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. How would you fix or nurture disaster preparedness?
We recently passed legislation that will require that the Department of Small Business Services has disaster-response plans in place for small businesses. So they have those mapped out in advance, at least outlines of a plan, so that when there is a specific emergency, you need to add in specifics for the plan, but you are not starting from scratch. We saw that with Sandy, that starting from scratch really put us in a less-good position.
Have you ever started a business yourself?
Maybe a lemonade stand as a kid, but nothing really as an adult.
How would the folks on your campaign describe you as a boss?
I hope they would describe me as supportive. I hope they would describe me as appreciative. I expect them to work hard--I'm definitely a hard worker myself--so I expect that. I expect folks to work hard and give them their all. And I try to be very supportive and grateful when they do. But if I see someone struggling in a particular area, and I know they're trying, I'll try to do problem solving with them to figure out what they need to be able to do better.
What has running a campaign taught you about productivity? Any tips?
I have a tendency toward being a micromanager. Which the bigger the project you're involved in, the harder that becomes. I think that it's important, especially if you're a micromanager, to have systems in place, so there's non-burdensome reporting from the staff so you can monitor it in a way that isn't getting in the way of being productive.
Just try to stay on schedule. Don't keep your own schedule--that will eat too much of your time keeping your own schedule. And when you are tired stop. Because if you are too tired, you become not productive, and you are wasting time. You need to stop and say, "you know what, I'm not going to do the next two things; I'm going to go home and crash." Then the next day you will have more time and energy and be able to get those two things in.
How are your tech skills? What sort of apps do you like? Do you do your own social media?
We have a team that does my social media. But occasionally I have pretty good suggestions. My favorite app is StumbleUpon, because it just give you interesting things that are sometimes exactly the stuff I'm interested in and sometimes just silly and funny.
If you were to start a business in New York City, what would it be?
Well, I think if you're going to do a small business, you have to do something you like. That's really, really important. One of the things that drives me crazy as a professional woman, is you'll have bought a suit, and you get home and realize you don't have a shirt to wear with it. Or you don't have the right shoes. The hardest thing is to figure out what to wear under the suit. So I think I would work on an Internet company where you could put in the clothes you had and it could tell you what you needed to finish that outfit, and have the ability to purchase it from that website. It's solving that frustration of opening the closet, and not knowing where to go from there.