In the decade between 2002 and 2012, when the number of private businesses established in the United States increased by 12.6%, New York City racked up growth of 17% in spite of the Great Recession. But in which one of the city’s five boroughs was the number of new businesses up by a towering 32% – more than two and a half times the national rate?
If you guessed Manhattan, you flunked. If you guessed Brooklyn, congratulations! (Queens was second with 24%; then Staten Island, 19%; the Bronx, nearly 15%. The laggard was Manhattan, with less than 10% growth, below the national figure.) A separate study just released by NYC’s Department of Small Business Services showed an even more dramatic increase in the number of women-owned businesses: Between 2004 and 2014, women’s business starts were up 43% citywide and up 77% in Brooklyn alone.
Where, Exactly, To Start a New York City Business
Is there something special about Brooklyn that fosters this entrepreneurial energy? Quite a few things, in fact – factors you can tap into yourself if you’re thinking of starting your own business in NYC.
One: Underused and relatively inexpensive spaces in need of reinvention, such as the waterfront industrial and warehouse buildings built to serve a shipping industry that now has largely gone away. The Bush Terminal (South Brooklyn) now houses Industry City, and the old Navy Yard (North Brooklyn) is a magnet for entrepreneurs and startups.
Two: A sharing and teaching culture – especially among Gen X and Millennials – so that leaders and innovators in a given business segment tend to bring others along. Forget dog-eat-dog. Factory tours and do-it-yourself classes dispense business know-how along with skills.
Three: A ready supply of adventurous consumers with disposable income who try new things and leap on trends such as craft beers, buying local and small-batch products. Brooklyn is just a few subway stops from high-paying Wall Street, after all, and is increasingly a magnet for tourists.
Five: A idea-rich culture of labs, workshops, blogs and aggregation sites that glamorize Brooklyn’s makers and innovators and keep the community abreast of who’s doing what and where and especially how: constant creative cross-pollination, in other words.
Six: Coworking spaces, guilds and other kinds of communities such as artisanal food markets or wares fairs that keep costs down, put creative people together and get makers’ goods in front of consumers. Examples: the Smorgasburg food markets in Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridge Park; Industry City in Sunset Park with its “made in Brooklyn” fairs and open studio days; the 30 or more food vendors at Brooklyn Flea's primary location.
Seven: There are not so many other places with this much cultural fusion power (some might call it mucho chutzpah), simultaneously multicultural and culturally entitled. Just ask Beyoncé, Jay Z, Lena Dunham, Spike Lee, the Beastie Boys, or look at the other people ringside at a Nets game in Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center. Or ask former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who liked to joke that he had 8,000 Facebook “likes,” 7,000 “oy veys,” and 6,000 “Fuhgeddaboudits.”
Eight: Brooklyn is in love with its own brand, but it’s still part of New York, New York – a wonderful town. The city and the state not only want new businesses to succeed but they also provide all sorts of helping hands, from incubators to tax benefits and instructions in how to use them, as if to say: If you can make it here…then please do.
Got Your Vagabond Shoes? Hoof It To Brooklyn…Cradle of Success
Keep these eight beacon points in mind as you read on through the following actual business startup stories. Suitably inspired? We’ll also point you to some of New York City’s many how-to resources that help folks get their own New York City startups off the ground.
ETSY • Your entrepreneurial zest may have ratcheted up a few notches with the news in March 2015 that 10-year-old Etsy had filed for an IPO with an initial target of $100 million, soon revised to more than $250 million. The Brooklyn-based online bazaar for craft and vintage items operates as a global marketplace for many thousands of vendors whose sales volume last year reached $1.93 billion – yep, that’s billion. That sure is a lot of crocheted potholders, sincere olive-oil shampoo bars and paint-flaked mechanical banks. Its birthplace is Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, a hotbed of high-tech companies.
MAKERBOT • Or maybe what set your entrepreneurial heart and brain to dreaming and scheming was the day the pioneering desktop 3-D printer designer/manufacturer MakerBot hit it big. It was founded in 2009 with $75,000 in seed money. In 2011 a venture capital firm put $10 million into it. In 2013 it was acquired by Stratasys Inc. (SSYS) in a deal valued at $403 million.
Now MakerBot has opened a 50,000-square-foot factory in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park to manufacture desktop 3-D printers – using Brooklyn-sourced materials. Three campuses of higher learning in New York State have set up MakerBot Innovation Labs to encourage students’ creativity and entrepreneurship. In announcing its fourth-quarter 2014 earnings, Stratasys reported that MakerBot-branded products and services brought in quarterly revenue of $26.6 million, but that’s just the beginning now that MakerBot has expanded distribution into 39 countries – without sacrificing its style. Its European Union reseller proudly trumpets MakerBot’s “thingiverse” of five tidy little machines that are “setting the standard in desktop 3-D printing, desktop 3-D scanning and 3-D entertainment.”
BOLD MACHINES • Meanwhile, MakerBot’s founding CEO, Bre Pettis, has stepped aside in order to lead a new venture called Bold Machines. This innovation lab has set up in the original “BotCave,” the former blacksmith shop in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill where MakerBot originally launched (“three guys with a lasercutter and a dream,” as Pettis said). Pettis, an ex-puppeteer who once worked at Muppet-creator Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London (a high-tech special-effects production house for Henson's films and other projects), now is working on a feature film of his own with a 3-D printed character named Margo who is a teenager from – where else? – Brooklyn and becomes a detective. Hello to the New Nancy Drew.
AMPLE HILLS CREAMERY • Perhaps, like Brian Smith in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, you’ve cranked out your special homemade ice cream in the friends-and-family-favorites flavors that you created and wondered whether you could make a business of this. In its early days, Ample Hills Creamery, an artisanal premium ice cream company, market-tested its tiny-batch product in carts and kiosks. Then in 2011 it launched year-round retail at a corner storefront in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights. There it built a thriving business – one scoop or pint or birthday party at a time – with Brian Smith making all the ice cream himself in a one-person, on-site ice-creamery visible from the street behind a huge picture window: See Brian go.
The first weekend Ample Hills opened its doors, demand was so strong that the ice cream sold out — right down to the last scoop of the Bubble Gum flavor. The store had to close for three days so that Smith and Ample Hills’ cofounder – his wife, Jackie Cuscuna – could build up stock. Now, four years later, Ample Hills has a much larger production line in its new second location, a factory up the hill from Brooklyn’s old-time Gowanus Canal industrial area. The new location not only supplies its special flavors to families and restaurants around the borough and across the East River to Manhattan, but it’s beginning to fill orders nationally. Jackie and Brian found time to do a book, “Ample Hills Creamery: Secrets and Stories from Brooklyn’s Favorite Ice Cream Shop,” with Brooklyn-based illustrator and coauthor Lauren Kaelin. It also offers classes in ice-cream making, notably one called “Kindred Spirits” featuring boozy sundaes so you can learn to churn with Brooklyn-made bourbons, rums and ryes.
BROOKLYN SPIRITS TRAIL • Real bourbon made in Brooklyn. New York, not Nelson County, Kentucky? Indeed: Since a change in the New York State laws on distilling spirits broadened the definition of legal farm-based stills, about a dozen micro-distilleries have sprung up in the borough – the first since Prohibition was instituted. A joint promotion put them together on a map designated The Brooklyn Spirits Trail.
CHOCOLATE FACTORIES • The burgeoning of booze in Brooklyn is matched by the artisanal chocolate fervor. Organic and fair-trade, primarily, and sometimes virgin: Mast Brothers, Raaka, Nunu, Brooklyn Dark, Cacao Prieto (chocolates as well as its Widow Jane bourbon, produced in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood). And of course the dean of the Brooklyn chocolatiers, Jacques Torres, initially renowned as the pastry chef called “Mr. Chocolate.” The first Jacques Torres chocolate factory was established in Dumbo in 2000. Then the chocolate workshops expanded into Manhattan’s Downtown neighborhood in 2004, and since then some strictly retail locations have opened in both boroughs. The next workshop move was into a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing space in the Brooklyn Army Terminal that enabled Torres to “pretty much double our business” to $10 million, as he reported to Inc. magazine in February 2015.
HOT SAUCES AND PICKLES AND SO MUCH MORE • Chili-based artisanal hot-sauce businesses like Sir Kensington’s all-natural ketchups have made the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual Chile [sic] Pepper Festival bigger than ever. And then there’s Kings County Jerky (grass-fed beef) and all the picklers (Brooklyn Brine and Sour Puss, for instance, but not Brooklyn Pickle – that’s a shop upstate in Syracuse selling sandwiches. As we said, Brooklyn is a brand). Oh, let’s don’t forget the small-batch knife-makers and breadboard makers and furniture crafters. Or the rooftop and backyard beekeepers.
FASHION • Brooklyn artisans are producing personal and home fashion goods, too: Maria Castelli’s beautiful leather bags, for instance, and Alexandra Ferguson’s carefully crafted cushions with savvy sayings appliquéd on them, a business that she moved out of her mother’s garage in Westchester County and into Industry City, tripling the number of her cushion makers (and still hiring) in less than a year. Now she’s diversifying her line, adding such things as makeup kits.
TOOLS FOR WORKING WOOD • If you can make it anywhere, you can make it here – thanks to the fabricators in the community who will customize for you and the legions of freelancers with skills you can call on. Need a special tool? Drop by Tools for Working Wood at 32 33rd Street in Industry City, Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Its website (which has a map) says: “The building covers the entire block but 32 is marked – pretty close to second avenue. When you get to the building go into the lobby and then go out to the freight elevators. If the freight elevator is not there ring the buzzer. Go up to the fifth floor we are in the back. Come on In!” That conveys the friendly, down-home atmosphere of the place.
Check Out the New Brooklyn, “Queens”
CRAFT BREWERIES • A craft-beer center is developing in western Queens. Four-year-old Finback’s “Good Beer for Good Friends” took space in Glendale for a 20-barrel brewhouse in 2013 and last year began selling its beer on draft. Others in Queens: About a dozen styles of beer, sold by the sixtel (five gallons) keg or 10-gallon cask, have been the mainstays of three-year-old Bridge and Tunnel Brewery. B&TB has been operating as a microbrewery in 150 square feet in Maspeth, but is now moving to Ridgewood to brew in a warehouse big enough to include a bar. Astoria Beer & Brew is both a bar – with live music every Friday – and a brew school for beginner home brewers. Queens Brewery, which has been operating upstate in Saratoga though distributed on tap at Citi Field and elsewhere in and around New York City, is now moving to Ridgewood so it will actually be made in Queens.
URBAN FARMS • Or maybe instead of being the “next Brooklyn,” Queens is becoming the real Brooklyn where wonders never cease. Commercial farming is happening on Northern Boulevard atop the six-story, 300,000-square-foot former Standard Motor Products building. The Brooklyn Grange has a 40,000-square-foot urban farm up there, first planted in 2010, that is essential to its CSA; it supplies restaurants as well as farm stands. Other tenants of the building include the Franklin Mint and a location of the Jim Henson Company.
Okay, Okay, You Can Succeed in Manhattan, Too
COWORKING SPACES • If you like to take your computer and work in a coffee shop but you’re getting fat on the food, then The Farm, located in SoHo, might be for you. Once you join as a member, you have access and can get locker storage for stuff you want to leave there. At huge reclaimed wood tables, you work shoulder to shoulder with folks like brand-development specialists CarbonSix, focused on global healthcare market research. Or Imagination in Space, specialists in creating art and culture pop-ups with entrepreneurial artists and other users of empty real estate.
There are whiteboards and conference spaces, many with sliding barn doors for sight-and-sound semi-privacy. The Farm is interested in transforming the world, but not by being disrupters, it says. “Alone you can make a difference,” the website announced recently: “Together we can make a change.” The Farm is just one such place; Manhattan has many. Symmetry50’s blog lists 15 Manhattan coworking spaces. (And for more business accelerators and coworking spaces throughout the five boroughs, check out this list at Quora.com.)
Now It’s Your Turn: Where NYC Startups Can Get Help
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in February 2015 a plan to alleviate the briar patch of regulations that new small businesses must struggle through. Called Small Business First, it is focused on simplifying licensing and permit application and approval. The effort is under the wings of the Mayor’s Office of Operation and the Department of Small Business Services – along with 15 or so “partnering City agencies,” which conveys some idea of the size of the problem.
The official website of the city has a substantial section devoted to business solutions “to help businesses start, operate and expand in New York City,” as it says. Look for the Business box on the first page of the site. The first category it will take you to is Start a Business. Bookmark it: Here you can click your way through a tutorial specific to the Big Apple that will take you all the way through your opening day.
Browse the programs and services for entrepreneurs available through the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), whose slogan is “Make It Here.” You’ll see why it claims that “NYCEDC has created an ecosystem to develop entrepreneurs across industries and stages of business with access to information, training and innovative competitions.”
For instance, NYCEDC sponsors Entrepreneur Space for coworking in Queens County’s Long Island City, specifically as a business incubator for food-related start-ups. A partnership between the Queens Economic Development Corporation and Kathrine Gregory’s Mi Kitchen es su Kitchen, Entrepreneur Space has a 5,000-square-foot commercial kitchen, open 24 hours a day, with four separate working-kitchen stations and vast food-storage facilities on site. There’s room for your back office, too, in the 7,000 square feet of office space open to general businesses.
You’ll find New York State Small Business Development Centers (NYSSBDC) in all five boroughs. They have helpful free publications such as “Business Planning: A Guide to Exporting” and “Recipe for Success: Selling Food Products,” downloadable in pdf form.
Notable among them: “Mature Entrepreneur Planning Guide: A Practical Guide to Preparing Your Business Plan,” 46 pages that take you step-by-step through analyzing your idea, writing an effective business plan, registering your business name as a DBA (“doing business as”) or deciding whether the business should be a sole proprietorship, a partnership, an “S” or “C” corporation. Also: where to get startup money and how to deal with New York State’s tax authority, how to get an EIN (Employer Identification Number) and a checklist of employer responsibilities. Also important: what records you need to keep. The guide provides a sample business plan and financial worksheets plus information on doing a break-even analysis. It is a pretty good early-stage handbook for an entrepreneur of any age since it maps out what you’re going to have to do.
The Bottom Line
So – ready to make a brand new start of it? Take it from Ole Blue Eyes: “It’s up to you.“ New York, New York is eager to do its part. The city is waiting, full of information and inspiration for you and your new business.