Last Wednesday evening, Twitter founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey hosted a panel discussion focusing on the experience of being a small business in Oakland. The panel featured downtown business owners Angela Tsay of Oaklandish, Ari Serrano-Embree of Oakland Surf Club, Kate Ellen Murphy of Crown Nine, and Cortt Dunlap of Awaken Cafe.
To begin the evening, Dorsey–who once lived in Oakland– described a “raw and excited” energy about the town, and the current trend in which people are increasingly drawn to quality, crafted products and services rather than large national chains. He then posed questions to the panel relating to the Oakland business owners’ personal stories and support networks.
The panel agreed that this is an exciting time to be in Oakland, but disagreed around the role of the city government. Dunlap of Awaken Café had fairly positive things to say. As the landlord of their space, the city government has been very supportive of the business and invested in the “downtown renaissance” by filling storefronts, he said.
However, Tsay of Oaklandish, located just across the street from Awaken, explained her company’s more complicated history with the city. She said in the early days of the Oaklandish art project, the city actually came and forcefully shut down their gallery space. She said she still sees serious land use issues and a lack of clear leadership in city hall that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Alternatively, Murphy, whose business Crown 9 is in a small alleyway in Old Oakland, did deal directly with the city. As a member of the Popuphood’s pilot project in the neighborhood, organizers Alfonso Dominguez and Sarah Filley negotiated a deal with the city to substantially lower her rent costs and allow her to get off the ground with very little upfront investment.
The panelists shared best practices with the crowd, comprised mostly of fellow local small business owners. Many said they spend very little money, if any at all, on traditional marketing. Most utilize social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to promote new products or special free giveaways to attract new customers and build brand loyalty with existing ones. Many also described themselves as kind of accidental entrepreneurs, not having formal business backgrounds or training. They said they found that collaborating with other small business owners in their neighborhoods had helped in avoiding pitfalls or working through their mistakes along the way as they built up their businesses.
Following the discussion, Dorsey opened up the conversation to the audience. Much of the Q&A centered around sharing resources for fellow small business owners. Some were seeking to build networks of support or find merchants associations, others were simply curious about management strategies, including bookkeeping and crowd-sourcing advice.
During the session, Nenna Joiner of Feelmore510 made a comment that got a lot of nods and murmurs of agreement. Addressing the elephant in the room–the significant inequality of access to resources for business owners in East, West, and North Oakland–Joiner emphasized the need to include those folks in the conversation. Though the panelists represented a mix of locals and transplants, Joiner’s statement touched on the difference between “new” Oakland businesses and “old” Oakland businesses and issues of privilege that need to be considered as well.
In closing, Dorsey emphasized that neighborhoods are the fundamental fabric of the country, but our sense of neighborhood has deteriorated. He said he hoped that these kind of events can get that conversation started again and strengthen our sense of community.
For this reason, he said he is committed to hosting these kinds of events in the future.