Tech and the Small Business

We opened Pet Camp 17 years ago at the start of what became known as the “Dot-Com Boom.” While everyone else who was starting a business was going high tech, we went low-low tech. The “Dot-Com Boom” went onto become the “Dot-Com Bust” and many of those remarkable tech companies (anyone remember left while some of us lowly low-tech companies are still here.

Next week I’m part of a sf.ciiti panel discussion with representatives from Weebly, Yelp, Square, Expensify and Twitter. These are some of the second wave of technology companies that make San Francisco home. Now I’m all in favor of technology companies coming to San Francisco, investing in our community, and creating jobs. I’m much less in favor of these companies bringing their Silicon Valley campus mindset to San Francisco and much-much less in favor of the ‘tude some of them seem to have. Let me explain…

Technology companies are being courted by San Francisco city leaders. While most small businesses are charged a payroll tax (that’s right, we’re taxed for creating jobs), technology companies got an exemption from that tax, and when they threatened to leave San Francisco, they got a break from other taxes. The City argued that these businesses need an exception for two reasons: (1) these companies had to pay salaries to employees long before they were making profits and (2) these companies would help all the other small businesses in the City. I’m not so sure that the City has it right.

First, every small business – tech or non tech – starts to pay salaries long before they are making money. That’s just the way it is. To maintain that tech companies are somehow different from non-tech businesses in this way doesn’t make sense.

Second, unlike many small businesses in San Francisco who really go out of their way to work with other small and neighborhood businesses our new tech friends don’t have the same mindset. Tech companies opening in San Francisco seem to have simply moved their Silicon Valley campuses to an urban environment. While most businesses have a small kitchen for their employees, a coffee pot and few other amenities; tech companies often have full service “cafés” within their space. Gone is the notion that the employees of these companies are going out for coffee or lunch at their neighborhood places. While some of the tech companies have a local restaurant cater a meal every now and again, there just isn’t much synergy between the tech companies and their small business neighbors.

So what about the notion of San Francisco’s small businesses selling things to these tech companies? A few months back I attended a neighborhood merchants group and a new to the neighborhood tech company came and pitched that they “love” working with small businesses and how we should all write them and explain how we could work together.   I’m soooo naïve!  I actually took the time to send them an email explaining how Pet Camp would be pleased to offer a discount to their employees and even free pick up and drop off for their employees needing doggie day care. Well, I’m still waiting for a response (even one that simply says thanks, but no thanks). Guess this small business won’t be working with that tech company any time soon.

And what about the tech company every small business loves to hate….Yelp. Yelp is located in San Francisco – but you’d never know! While small businesses post their address and phone number on their web page and invite folks in to do business with them, Yelp is just the opposite. You can’t meet with them, you can’t talk to them – I have no idea how you could ever think of doing business with them. Moreover, who do they think they are? Really, you claim to want to work with small businesses but you won’t even tell us where your office is or how to talk to you? I say – get over yourself! Sure, you probably have a nicer kitchen and fancier computers than we do – but we answer our phones when they ring and people who want to see us and do business with us can always find us by knocking on the door with our name on it!

Ok, so what do I want from my new tech neighbors?  I think all businesses should pay their fair share of the costs of running San Francisco.  The jobs tech companies create are no better than the jobs any other small business creates and all of us should be rewarded for creating jobs.  Not everyone wants to work in tech (or in pet care or anywhere else for that matter) so let’s not make it seem that some jobs are more important than others – they’re not to the person taking home the paycheck.  I also want these tech companies to open up their doors – both figuratively and literally.  Rather than spending the money to have a café and a chef in-house, reach out to your neighborhood cafés and restaurants and create a local gift certificate or purchasing program.  Your employees will still get “free” food or coffee and the money will circulate in San Francisco.  And sure, I know that you guys are all “web” based or “in the cloud” but your business is in San Francisco – put a phone number, a contact person and an address on your web page so that we can contact you.  There might actually be something that a non-tech small business has to offer you or your employees that you might want.

But what you think?  How can tech and non-tech businesses work better together so that we all succeed?  What lessons did San Francisco (and other places) learn from the dot com bust so that we don’t repeat it?  What can non-tech small businesses learn from the dot com boom and bust to make us better small businesses?  But most importantly, do you think I can get any of these techies to teach me how to use my DVR?

Thanks for reading!