Rob Walsh, Commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services
Q: What role do small businesses play in the overall New York City economy?
A: More and more, small business is becoming very important to the economy of New York City. You know, for years we focused so much on Wall Street and the financial sector… And the New York City economy, if you look at [it now], you see a great deal of innovation and creativity. That’s small business. We have over 200,000 small businesses in New York. We see them growing throughout the five boroughs. They’ve become more and more important.
Q: How would you say New York compares to other cities in terms of its support for small businesses and the small business environment?
A: Well, I’d like to say we help quite a bit. You know, I took this job in 2002. I was in Charlotte, North Carolina [and] I got a phone call from the new mayor, Mike Bloomberg, who I’d never met in my life... We met for 59 minutes. And I was just struck by the new mayor and what he wanted to do, [which was] develop an agency that didn’t exist before called the Department for Small Business Services, knowing that [there were] 200,000 small businesses in New York.
This was after 9/11. A lot of people knew we were on our knees, that we were suffering, we were struggling, particularly small businesses. And [we asked,] "What can we end up doing from a proactive approach to help those small businesses? What tools, what resources, what efforts can we make to help small businesses during the toughest times?"
You know, it’s interesting. You look at the history of New York [and] great thing things do come out of crisis. We’ve seen it time and time again. Here in New York, we saw people come together like never before. Small businesses that had suffered, that had struggled, began growing again. And I think that’s pretty powerful.
Q: What are the biggest hurdles you think small businesses still face?
A: [When we first began, we spoke to people across the city. And three things came up again and again.] One was access to capital: "Where’s the money? How do I get a loan? I’ve been turned down time and time again by banks. How do I do that? Or how do I repair my credit? Help me get back on my feet."
The second area is navigating government. "It is so complicated in New York," we heard over and over.... And then the third was, "Help us find good workers and good people."
Q: What are the advantages of opening a business here?
A: I think the great advantage right now in New York City is the number of resources that are now available. It is phenomenal what is happening in New York. The mayor was spot-on with the growth of Cornell University ... and NYU Poly [Polytechnic Institute of New York University] and Columbia doubling the size of their campus.
People want to come back here. They want to come back because there’s 300 neighborhoods throughout New York that are safer, they’re cleaner, they’re better. We’ve added a lot more park space. We have the best cultural facilities in the world. There’s a lot of advantages of New York City and what has taken place.
Q: How have you seen small businesses in the city weather the recession?
A: Let’s just say it: Small businesses have struggled with the recession…. But, you know, in some ways, I’m seeing we’re getting over the hump on that. I gotta believe that. You know, when I think about the mom and pop shops and I think of some of these corridors that have now opened up — the growth in downtown Brooklyn, the growth in Long Island City, the growth along Jamaica Avenue in Queens. The Bronx. You go up to Fordham Road, 149th Street, you’re not finding vacancies. So yeah, we struggled, but I think we have managed it and managed it well.
[Take, for example,] a place called the Hot Bread Kitchen. You gotta to go to this place [in] East Harlem. A woman, Jessamyn Waldman, who runs the place, she has immigrant women that she’s teaching how to cook and make pastry and develop breads from their hometowns all over the world. And she has now made inroads in some of the places like Whole Foods and the markets that we have, the green markets in town. You know, people have been, during the recession, incredibly creative in growing the city and making things happen.
Q: What sectors do you see as being the boom sectors for entrepreneurs?
A: Well, the greatest success that we’ve had I think has been tourism and hospitality. You go back to 2002, 2003, maybe 20 million, 30 million people came to the city, maybe? Today, it’s over 50 million.. [Also] the film industry. I mean, there’s more movies shot here than ever before.
So I would say tourism, media, restaurants have all blossomed. And now, what we’re seeing is the return of technology. The technology clusters, whether it’s right here in Lower Manhattan [or] in the Flatiron area, you’re seeing more and more technology companies. Downtown Brooklyn's really exciting.
Q: What are some of the challenges you see going forward?
A: I think one of the challenges we have [is that] with the end of our involvement in the Middle East, we have a lot of folks, men and women, who are coming back from the war. They’re veterans. Thousands of them will come back to New York. And they’re going to be looking for work. They could fix a tank, they were good at transportation logistics. They have a certain specialized skill. [The question is] how do we have that [skill] transfer to something else that’s available in New York?
Q: What impact do you think the Barclays Center have on small businesses in the area?
A: I hope they give some of the local restaurants a shot at opening up in Barclays… I think that local connection is important. But look at what’s going to happen around that area: You’re going to see bars, you’re going to see restaurants, you’re going to see shops, you’re going to see retail. What do they say about a great tide? It lifts all boats. And I think that’s what you’re going to see in Downtown Brooklyn.
Q: What about 7-Eleven's plan to expand? What does that mean for local businesses such as bodegas?
A: We still have many commercial corridors where those gates come down at 7 o’clock, and it’s a ghost town. [So] if it means it’s going to add jobs and it’s going to add much more light on the street, eyes on the street, activity on the street, God bless 7-Eleven.
I also think that there’s still a role for bodegas. They’re going to figure it out. You know, I compared it recently to [the concerns at] Union Square [back when the farmers' market first opened.] And I used to have the delis and the fruit and vegetable guys that had shops adjacent to Union Square Park say, "If you put that green market in, you’re going to put me out of business".
You know, the green market in Union Square brings 50,000 people to Union Square. [We said to the established businesses] "You’re going to benefit. Maybe you’re not going to sell lettuce that day when the market's there, but you’re going to be selling a lot of other things, and it’s going to be beneficial."
And I've got to say, I believe the same thing for 7-Elevens. If 7-Eleven opens up at 149th Street in the Hub in the Bronx and that means that there’s a store that’s open on the corner, we’re all going to benefit from that.
Q: What advice would you give people looking to open a small business now in New York?
A: I would say, the first is have a great plan. Develop a rock-solid business plan with contingencies. Turn over every single rock. Make sure you’ve thought about it.
You know, I meet a lot of people: culinary artists, chefs. They’re the best in the business, but they don’t have a great plan on pricing and what-not. So that would be number one.
The second one would be take advantage of all the services that are now available: the incubators, the capital access, our programs, training classes.
And the third piece of advice is, when you’ve been turned down ... Don’t stop. Contact us. Contact the Small Business Administration. See if there’s other places you could end up going to get help.