The speculative fiction writer William Gibson, a pioneer of the cyberpunk genre, is often credited with saying "The future is already here--it's just not evenly distributed."
I've thought about this a lot recently, as I've overseen my company's expansion into new cities. I'm happy to tell you that today, Gibson is flat-out wrong. The future of our cities is more evenly distributed than ever.
This is not to say you'll find the same opportunity for your business in every city, of course. But if you've considered only the biggest urban areas as potential expansion targets, it may be time to reconsider. We're looking at putting stores into cities we had once dismissed, because so many of them are growing in population for the first time since the 1970s. As a result, I find myself in places off my usual path, and I've had to reassess what works--and what doesn't--when expanding our company. There are three things I take into account when I evaluate a new city. They may help you as well when moving beyond your home base is an option.
Is the city making an attempt to provide better public transportation, including pedestrian walkways and bike sharing? Anything that says "Come use our streets. Be part of our city"? Being able to access services without the hassle of driving or parking creates a community feeling, even for those visiting only for a day. The best discoveries are usually made accidentally, and a city that's easy to traverse on foot or by bike lets people meander and explore. For example, our store in Philadelphia is located in the traffic-congested Center City area, but a new bike-sharing program there has increased our business with international tourists, who can now pick up bikes all over the city.
Will your company be surrounded by different kinds of businesses, selling both goods and services, that will attract an assortment of people? We recently decided to relocate our Brooklyn headquarters, and the adjacent retail store, to the renovated waterfront. The new location will attract not just shoppers who seek us out; it will be directly in the path of people going to restaurants, offices, and other stores.
I love a city with a point of view, one that values its regional traditions even as it works to revitalize itself. Are there enough civic and business leaders who will continue to work toward a better citizen experience? Culture must meet commerce to establish the everyday life of a city, and local leaders must be able to transcend politics in deciding how quickly to develop. We've found this in Baltimore, a city undergoing tremendous renewal during a rocky time. The developers revitalizing that city's waterfront are working in partnership with the mayor's office to increase opportunities for certified minority- and women-owned enterprises.
Of course, there are times when things just don't work out. Maybe an area is emerging, but it's just too early. Maybe it's developing in a way that is just too commercial and not authentic enough. We recently decided against expanding to a city with a rich history, one that looked very promising on paper, because we found that the right energy and customers just weren't there. You can see some of this with data, but sometimes you have to trust your gut. In that way, assessing each additional location for your business is like shopping for a new home for your family: Look beyond perfection and focus on whether you will be a welcome and constructive part of the community.