Forget Business As Usual: Unusual Strategies for Growing A Small Start-up Business
On the national and global landscape, job loss, stagnating wages, economic downturns, corporate downsizing, mergers, acquisitions, and huge chains muscling out local enterprises all contribute to a sense of overwhelm that can only be overcome by personal determination, an entrepreneurial mindset, and innovative action by small business owners.
Economies of Scale
In the photo above, Madison Square Garden looms larger-than-life as the juxtaposed backdrop for the tiny street-level hotdog vending cart doling out New York-style Sabretts. I spent the summer of 2011 in New York, and on my way out of the city — before entering Penn Station to board my Amtrak train (Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station) — I made a beeline for my favorite hotdog stand for an Italian sausage. (My favorite hotdog stand is any one of them!)
My aunt and I had an animated — and revealing — conversation with the fellow manning the stand. As he dished up a generous serving of peppers, onions and spicy mustard, he bemoaned the difficulties faced by small business owners operating in the shadow of big business. Yet, the challenges faced by vending cart owners are not severe enough to make them trade in the income potential, lucrative venues, and unlimited foot-traffic. That conversation stayed with me over the next few months and partly sparked the idea for this article, (in fact, a whole series of them) about the vending industry, particularly street vending.
Why the Vending Business?
These vendors – most of whom don’t have the capital to open restaurants – are incredibly popular. They are investing in our economy and creating their own businesses during a time of financial crisis. They feed untold thousands of people delicious meals every day, usually at lower prices than are available in stores and restaurants. — Street Vendor Project (SVP)
If you didn’t have any idea about why vending makes good economic sense or how it fits into the whole scheme of economic development, the spokesperson for the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project summed it up1 nicely:
- low capital
- invests in the economy
- creates businesses during financial crises
- feeds thousands of people daily
- saves consumers money
Although focused on a different facet of the vending industry, the vending machine business, 1800Vending points out another important benefit: immediate cash flow. “Your cash flow can start as soon as your equipment is placed. Most new businesses fail, in large part, from lack of cash flow in the beginning. One of the many benefits of vending machines is that your cash flow can start Day 1.”
Lowest Common Denominator: One
Vendors in Lagos are usually migrants from rural villages who cannot find regular work, but take up vending as a means of basic survival. — Street Vendor Project2
Economic development can happen on a grand scale or a small scale. We kicked off the economic development series last year with a vintage video starring a cartoon character epitomizing the small business owner of the era. There are more vintage videos coming up in that animated series, but the video below features a real character working as industriously as our fictitious Sudso…
Street vendor opening his mobile Halal shop3
The lowest common denominator? One man, one job. Or maybe, one family replacing lost income. Or one idea and investment that contributes to the local tax-base, employs a few folk, reduces unemployment, and contributes to the wealth of the nation.
Different Kinds of Vending
I saw a counter on the vending machines site referenced above that showed earnings from the vending industry in (virtual) real-time. According to the figures flying by, the vending industry is a multi-million dollar cash cow. Have you ever considered vending as an economic development activity to earn income, prime the small business pump for your family, neighborhood, and wider community? (I have!)
There are different kinds to consider …
- vending machines (snacks, drinks, combo)
- vending boxes
- food trucks
- pushcarts (hot dogs, ices)
- newspaper stands
- music and art vending
- snack shops with mostly pre-processed food
- candy dispensers
- small, plastic toy dispensers
- big, stuffed animal dispensers
You can likely think of many, many other kinds of vending activities (especially those that can fit into a dispensing machine) such as school or office supplies, fishing bait, travel-size personal products … The list goes on!
Let’s look at some examples of who engages in this type of small business vending activity.
Who Engages in Small Business Vending Activities?
. . . if there’s so much as a taco truck that makes daily stops here, I wanna know about it. — NYPD Detective Al Burns
The quote above is from a television show4 supposedly set in New York (of course it could have been filmed in Podunk, Montana!) but food trucks are so much a part of everyday scenery that it was a natural line to include in the dialogue. In a new made-for-T.V. movie-length pilot episode of The Firm, a food truck actually made it into a scene and was the reason a school guard didn’t see a criminal act take place.
But big cities and unreal TV shows are not the only place street vending is really taking place. As more and more people see how viable vending is as a small business activity, the popularity rises and unlikely venues become home to mobile entrepreneurship.
I had the pleasure of having an hour-long telephone conversation with one such vendor who started with a single hotdog cart and now owns two such carts and a food truck — in a small, southern city. He shared insights into why he chose this type of business for his entrepreneurial debut even though he doesn’t reside in a huge metropolitan area.
Everybody has a story while they wait for their hotdog. I like to talk to people . . . It’s rewarding!
He and his wife understand the value vending holds for economic revitalization and they’re not shy about sharing challenges, rewards, and a few tips. For now I won’t give you any more than that because my interview with them is the subject of the next post in this series. Okay, okay! Here’s a quote from Quinton Whipper, New York’s Famous Hotdogs . . .
While you’ll have to wait a bit to hear an insider’s story, who else is participating in the vending industry as a small business owner?
- Answering Fifteen Questions, SVP Director Sean Basinski mentions how the First Amendment allows anyone to sell books, magazines, records, CDs, DVDs, political items and art in New York without a license which gives many young and emerging artists a chance to sell their work, even if they are not represented by galleries.5
- So easy even a child can do it? In Boy Having Success With Vending Machine Business, we are told of a 9-year-old whose grandfather bankrolled his entre into the small business vending arena. According to the article, young Colin is the owner of three pop machines, a snack machine and numerous honor boxes (and his granddad serves as his driver when he needs to restock and gather his earnings!).
- Rieva Lesonsky discusses how gourmet food trucks cater “everything from movie and television film crews to private parties such as bar mitzvahs.” An interesting example is when Yahoo! rented a truck to give out free whoopie pies at an event.6
So, who vends? Young and old. Freelancers and artists. Big companies, mom-and-pops, husbands and wives . . .
Thus Begins a Series …
This article gave an overview of how facets of the lucrative vending industry can be viewed as a viable economic development strategy for small business. In future articles I plan to discuss related topics, including:
- issues facing industry
- human interest stories and at least one interview
- applying today’s technologies (social media, mobile marketing) to vending
- vending venues
- the roles of special interest groups
Your comments and questions can also help focus and shape further topics of interest. Any feedback is greatly appreciated!
I hope you will stay with me throughout this series. When you look around at friends, family, neighbors and see the puzzled expressions and hear the puzzlement in the face of the wealth all around, perhaps you can have a conversation with a dear one about some simple strategies for regaining their feet. One such strategy could include vending of some sort.
Share what’s on your mind in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
Image and Photo Credits: Madison Square Garden, 3 April 2005, courtesy of Baschti84, licensed under GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons. ~ Photo of Gisela Kloess and Quinton Whipper standing beside their New York’s Famous Hotdogs cart in Columbia, South Carolina. Used with permission.
Link to this page:
- Article: “SVP position on food truck bill” [NY], Street Vendor Project, Urban Justice Center. Accessed 30 Dec 2011. [↩ go back]
- The Street Vendor Project provides useful information about issues street vendors routinely face, as well as strategies and solutions for dealing with those issues. Excerpts used in this reference come from the fifteen reader questions SVP Director Sean Basinski answered for the NY Times Cityroom Blog on October 7-9, 2009. Accessed October 2011. [↩ go back]
- Video: Street vendor opening his Halal shop in Manhattan, New York – I originally viewed this video on the Inkwatu blog in an essay by Hilton Kean Jones about New York Street Food, 6 September 2008. Accessed October 2011. [↩ go back]
- CBS, Unforgettable, Butterfly Effect. Spoken by NYPD Detective Al Burns (played by Dylan Walsh) to a colleague as he looked around the construction site in search of evidence. [↩ go back]
- Street Vendor Project, Fifteen Reader’s Questions, Cityroom Blog. [↩ go back]
- Network Solutions and other registrars have active sections on small business and (surprisingly) have an eye on the vending and street vending industry segments. Article by Rieva Lesonsky, Network Solutions, Grow Smart Biz Channel, Hot Trend: Food Truck Operators Add New Services, 25 July 2011. Accessed 15 Nov. 2011. [↩ go back]