Business Week magazine recently profiled the 50 best small cities for starting a small business. They selected one from each state – and Hoboken represented New Jersey.
The publication stated that a robust workforce, proximity to colleges and universities, and the availability of local government aid made small cities ideal for small businesses. Does Hoboken fit the bill?
With so many businesses having to leave because of high rents, or – in the case of some side street shops – less foot traffic than Washington Street, several small businesses are still thriving in town.
The shirt off your back
Brian Cox owns Solid Threads t-shirts and apparel on First Street. After running his “fashion forward” t-shirt business out of his home part-time for five years, finding a place in Hoboken came with more perks than he thought.
Cox picked his spot at 365 First St. for the size of its storage space in the back. Much of Cox’s business is internet orders and wholesale, so he needed room to operate.
But the front-side retail started to attract more visitors than he expected, Cox said.
“There are huge advantages to being in Hoboken,” he said. “I didn’t open the location for the retail aspect, but I was surprised at how much it helped.”
Foot traffic was steady and customers became extremely loyal, he said.
“We’re a small independent shop and people are glad we exist here,” Cox explained. “The cost [of space in Hoboken] could be a little prohibitive for a small business, especially if the business doesn’t have a diversified stream of revenue.”
His internet sales help justify the high cost, and the foot traffic just makes things even better, he said. Now he’s expanding his catalogue to fit the town: dog apparel.
“Hey,” he said, “it’s a dog-friendly town.”
Dog eat dog
Karl Gerstner can also attest that Hoboken is a dog-friendly town. He and his wife have owned Beowoof Provisions for Pets, 106 Fifth St., for the last seven years.
“Hoboken is one of the few places in the state where we could survive. And so far there’s no PetSmart here,” he said, hoping not to jinx his fortune.
His prices are extremely competitive, but some people still believe a small business will charge them more for less. Not true, according to Gerstner. Added services like free delivery in town also help keep the loyal customers loyal, he said.
While operating a half-block off of Washington Street, Gerstner said he considered many times whether moving his shop to the main strip would prove beneficial. However, he said the rent could be four times as high.
Small business incubators
Hoboken has a handful of places where small businesses can buy space and grow on-site. The Monroe Center, the Hoboken Business Center, and the Neumann Leathers factory are a few that stand out.
Neumann Leathers hosts small-scale light industry and upstart tech companies alongside artists and musicians. The old buildings allow for redesign and re-proportioning of workspace, which is perfect for small business. The need for space can fluctuate for a small business and space is expensive – especially on Washington Street – which makes a building like Neumann Leathers attractive.
Greg Dell’Aquila opened the Hoboken Business Center (HBC), 50 Harrison St., with his father in 2004 and knew that attracting business into the southwest corner of Hoboken might be tough.
He said the Monroe Center at 720 Monroe St. provided for a diversity of business – “a marketing firm next to a pastry shop” – but it didn’t offer the professional atmosphere that he could provide.
When the HBC opened, Dell’Aquila pictured large office spaces with a short list of tenants. He wanted architects, lawyers, and engineers, and he soon found them. But the need was for executive suites, or multiple small office spaces that share a receptionist and other services. So he complied and broke up a portion of the building to fill the need.
“Hoboken’s got sex appeal.” – Greg Dell’Aquila
What else attracts businesses to Hoboken? Dell’Aquila said transportation and flexibility are feathers in Hoboken’s cap, but what really makes this a small business haven is Hoboken itself.
“Hoboken’s got sex appeal,” Dell’Aquila said. “They want to be here. It creates an image for the business.”
Keeping the paychecks coming
Jerry Carter is in a unique position. Carter is the owner of Priority Payroll, housed in the HBC. Not only does Carter run a small business, his clients are mostly small business owners. Is Hoboken working for them?
“It’s the ideal place,” he said. Proximity to New York City? Check. A “melting pot” workforce? Check. Name recognition? Check. Social scene? Check.
Aside from the tunnel traffic, Carter said Hoboken is perfect for him. And his clients in town are doing well.
The cost of space in Hoboken, he said, is obviously cheap compared to Manhattan – 20 to 30 percent lower, according to Carter – but is also affordable compared to other areas of New Jersey.
When he started his business in 2004, he said he drove down the Garden State Parkway looking for space. “The prices weren’t that much less in those other locations,” he said, including in his previous location in Jersey City’s Exchange Place.
He said most buildings in Jersey City weren’t looking to accommodate a small business; they were looking for the big fish, not the little fish.
Carter said, “At HBC, they’re all small businesses.”
Hoboken likes the little fish.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.