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Despite gloomy predictions about the end of New York City, energy is returning to the streets we love. The familiar rhythms of the five boroughs are in the air. And yet, on the ground, all is not well.
It’s not just COVID-19 variants bringing uncertainty back. New York’s small businesses remain in grave danger. Of the more than 200,000 businesses in our city, 98 percent have fewer than 100 employees and 89 percent have fewer than 20 employees, but collectively they represent more than 50 percent of our jobs. While customers are surely returning — albeit more slowly than expected — many of these businesses are already gone. Meanwhile, a huge remainder had been shielded from eviction by government mandate, and now the rent is coming due.
These ground-floor retail shops, hair salons, dry cleaners and the like were never built for this kind of crisis. Most lost a year or so of revenue, while customers fled to (and some still live in) Florida, Aspen, LA and elsewhere. The new folks moving into town haven’t yet developed a bond with them. As a result, the Partnership for New York City predicted that as many as a third of the 200,000+ small businesses in pre-pandemic NYC may never reopen.
What are we to do, as devoted New Yorkers? The truth is, I care about all of New York, and I bet you do too. But I desperately want Tal Bagels on 54th and 1st to survive. That’s my bagel place, they know my order, and I would be devastated if they disappeared. Same with Vera’s Shoe Repair on 55th and 2nd and Ambassador Wines down the block. How about VB Salon, where the team has loyally cared for my hair over more than 15 years? See, New Yorkers are intensely neighborhood-focused — it’s just that our neighborhoods are even smaller than most people think. Our lives play out within a one or two block radius. We all have our special places.
Of course, you can support your local store by spending money at that specific spot. But these businesses don’t have huge margins. Buying a cup of coffee at your favorite corner cafe today will help the owner make this month’s payroll and rent, but may not backfill last year’s disastrous gap. With a lot of patrons simply not back in NYC yet or not frequenting certain locales (Midtown, for example), they are still not seeing the foot traffic they need. You could just leave a gigantic tip or drop by with an envelope of cash at some point, but most of us aren’t doing that.
I’m a venture capitalist, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s how technology, when combined with resilience and the generosity of a population like ours, can solve problems. So last fall, I started calling a few friends in the worlds of technology, marketing and development and came up with a solution.
We came up with a website — saveyourcity.nyc — launching today, Small Business Saturday, which will allow everyone to support their favorite businesses with just a few clicks.
The site will prompt you to select your favorite businesses (or nominate them to the site if you don’t see them). You can select an amount to donate and how to spread it out among these businesses. Our site will confirm that these are real places, meeting our eligibility criteria for small NYC business, and issue your payments via Stripe. If for some reason we can’t locate the businesses you specify, we donate the balance to the Partnership for New York City, which builds partnerships between businesses and government to make NYC stronger. The whole process takes minutes and can be done from wherever you are (Aspen exiles, I’m looking at you). We make no salary or profit from any of this; it is a labor of love for NYC.
The beauty of this solution is its simplicity. You get to support your favorite spots, all from the comfort of your device. The businesses get a grant that helps backfill the devastation of last year (most of them don’t need crazy sums of money, just a few grand). The buildings get healthy retail tenants and happy inhabitants, and our neighborhoods stay vibrant.
Can we guarantee that these business owners won’t buy a Ferrari with the relief money? We are asking them to pledge to a code of honor, but we’re a small volunteer organization, so the answer is no. But, let’s face it, that’s not who New York business owners are. These are the people you know who own the spots you love.
According to NY state, 80 percent of these businesses still report a negative impact from the lockdowns even one year later. Truly small businesses got only about 16 percent of all federal PPP loans delivered to NYC through December of 2020 — about $3 billion total, far less than the large corporations and chains.
As life and traffic return to our great city, let’s not leave the small businesses we love behind. Now there’s a way to Save Our City together, one beloved business at a time.
Oliver Libby is the co-founder and managing partner of venture firm H/L Ventures and one of the founders of Save Our City.