A few weeks ago, we were faced with a tough decision: We had found a great, new spot for our Boston HQ at 29 Stanhope Street, but moving immediately meant paying for our old space at 252 Newbury Street at the same time as our new office.
However, not moving meant putting our new business strategy of solely focusing on Apple business and VIP customers on hold for a couple months. We determined that a pivot of our business now was best - there's no point in putting the future on hold.
So that left the question: What should we do with our old space? In the "normal" business world, our choice was one of two things: (a) find someone to sublet the space for a couple months at full rate or (b) pay a real estate agent to get someone into the space (which would cost us at least a month of rent). In true Tech Superpowers fashion, we chose to do neither.
I got a tweet telling me about the plight of Green Street Vault, a big green van which was until recently found parked on the streets of Boston selling the latest in fashionable street wear. As covered recently by the Metro, Green Street Vault had recently gotten into trouble with the City of Boston, who didn't have an applicable permit for the mobile commerce that Derrick and Howard were pioneering - so they started to slap them with $100s of citations. Plenty of people were rightly up in arms about it, because what Green Street was doing seemed like a simply progression of commerce in the age of mobile connectivity and social media, but obviously, the city (and I suspect some other Boston businesses) saw it as a disturbance of status quo that went one step too far.
So we offered Derrick and Howard to take our old space at 252 Newbury for less than 1/2 of the market value of the space. Why? Not because we don't need the money. We certainly do – a few thousand bucks a month goes a long way in today's economy. But money isn't everything, and we believed the they were doing something good, something unique in Boston's business scene, and they deserved a break. They were within days of shutting down their business. Cash flow is key to running a small business, and if you're not moving product, then you're slowly leaking away what value you have.
Tech Superpowers moved onto Newbury Street 15 years ago, and based on the number of our clients who were there at that time, Newbury Street was a hub on innovation in Boston. Years before the Nike Store and Apple Store were part of the retail scene in Back Bay, Newbury Street was huge in supporting up and coming local businesses. Not only were retailers like Newbury Comics and Trident Booksellers making a name for themselves, but upstairs, dozens of tiny businesses were making a name in graphic design, video production, and advertising on Newbury Street (not just real estate agents and nail salons).
But somewhere along the line, something changed. As the big brands moved in, landlords became increasingly opportunistic, and in building after building these unique entrepreneurial businesses were replaced by the same old boring businesses that now dot the landscape of Newbury Street. While Newbury Street still holds a place dear to my heart - because it's where my business went from $200K per year in sales to $5.3 million - it's no longer the unique shopping destination that it was before. Sadly, Newbury Street has become as predictable and money-driven as the local mall.
As a business owner, I have no problem with people, including landlords, maximizing their financial gain. The real problem was that it left no room for innovation on one of Boston's more unique streets. And innovation, I believe, is at the heart of Boston's joie de vivre. You see, our clients are Boston-based companies who do "Genius" (like our tagline says) - and the ones that do very very well, like Kiva Systems (bought by Amazon), SmartInsulin (bought by Merck), and Rue La La (at one point owned by eBay), are taking Boston-based innovation and pushing the boundaries of commerce and business throughout the world. Even MIT's history of creating companies is part of our DNA.
So any place that is taking Boston's innovation for granted needs a little shake up. And in our parting months as a Newbury Street tenant (who isn't actually on Newbury anymore), we decided to make a point.
The point was to stand up for people like Derrick and Howard - guys that have their blood, sweat, tears, and life savings in their business. Guys who create something new, leveraging new technologies like iPhone/3G-based commerce that can be done from anywhere and social media to drive themselves to where their customers are - rather than vice versa.
Guys like them deserve a chance - to prove that their business has legs and deserves just as much of a chance as any other in Boston. So that's why we reached out to them with nothing else but a tweet to have them take over our space on Newbury Street at a steal of deal. Hopefully, they can show the old-school brands and businesses on Newbury Street how new-school business is done and show the city that the value of Newbury Street isn't in the same brands that they can get in any mall in America. The value of the street is in the unique variety of local and global shops all in one place.
With the recent loss of places like Tech Superpowers, JP Licks and the Otherside Cafe, perhaps that lesson is too late in coming. But I hope, for the sake of the street that carried us from a scrappy MIT startup to a global brand of our own, that Newbury Street – and everyone who visits it – can see the point that we're making when they pass by Green Street Jungle.