I found this really interesting chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve while doing research for a presentation I'll be giving later on this year. It's a bit hard to make out, but what it says is that the general estimated sales for "General Merchandise Stores" (read your Wal-Marts and the like), which for the better part of 10 years was the dominant retail category, fell behind "Food and Beverage stores" in 2014. What's really shocking though, is that neon blue line, which is "Food Services and Drinking Places" (aka restaurants and bars), which has exploded in growth nationally. In 2009, that sector accounted for about $38bn in sales - today that number is $58.5bn - and growing. But also, pay very close attention to that black line - "Nonstore" retailers - aka your online Amazon stores and the like. What was a $25bn industry in 2009 is today more than double that, at almost $56bn.
For decades, Americans spent more on food than they did on anything else - and then the superstores came into vogue and there was a shift in spending away from food/drink stores until the early 2010's. Now, it seems that either restaurants or online shopping will overtake groceries as the top retail category in the US by 2020. But things do go up and down, and people will always have to buy groceries - right?
Personally I think we're starting to see the peak of the hill of online retailing. Not at the top - I still think that's at least 5-6 years away - but I feel the rapid growth stage is ending.
What do you think? Do you think we're reaching the permanent end of groceries as the dominant retail category? Will Amazon own EVERYTHING? Will we ever get to "peak restaurant"? Post your thoughts in the comments!
A long, long time ago, on a continent far away, I was the president of an American Football organization called Gridiron Victoria (GV). To this day, it remains the largest organization I've ever led. GV had some 500 players, coaches, and officials when I left the organization to pursue other professional goals in 2012. When I took over as president in 2010, the league was not in great shape. We had started the year with one of our six clubs folding, leading to a few weeks of bickering as to whether we should have a 10 game or 12 game schedule (we settled on 12). The season ended as lackluster as it had began - with a boring, meagerly attended 7-0 championship game in a hail storm. Players and club administrators were growing bored. The top three teams were a foregone conclusion by week 1 and no one wanted to play the same team 3 times in a season. Those club admins who were old enough to remember when the league had over a dozen clubs in the 90's would frequently reminding the younger members of the "glory days" (and expressing understandable resentment at the current situation).
I knew what we as a league had to do. GV had to grow - or as a league it would die. Slowly at first, then suddenly - without growth, I knew GV was dead. It would only be a matter of time.
The GV Logo then and now. My how things change...
The idea of growth was generally not something the sport's leaders truly embraced at the time. Certainly, they wanted growth, but it had to be the "right" type of growth. In GV's operating rules there were requirements that a new club needed to meet in order to be allowed to participate. These requirements were extremely onerous, and as a result, a new club hadn't applied to play in about 10 years; and when I say onerous, I speak from the position of having tried to create a club. This was before the days of ubiquitous social media, so organizing people was much more difficult than today. The amount of work needed to get a club off the ground would have been a herculean task - so I gave up and decided to join a club that took me nearly an hour to get to by public transport.
Speaking with the leadership at the time, the logic as to why it was so hard to get in made sense, on the surface. They had seen so many clubs with weak finances and limited player/coach pools start up and fail, often mid to late season. I had seen this very thing happen two years before I became president - a club rep came to a league meeting, said nothing, then folded the club the next day, with 3 weeks to go in the season. It was a strain on the league when clubs couldn't make it to the end of a year, and really disheartening each time a club folded. In my opinion, while GV was protecting new clubs from potential failure, it was also protecting itself and its players from additional disappointment, frustration, and aggravation. This is very understandable. Disappointment hurts, and if you have enough of it, people become jaded, and walk away. I remember getting all geared up to play a game only to have a team forfeit after driving an hour to the field. It's not what anyone signed up for, and it's respectable for any organization to try and keep those occurrences to a minimum.
And yet, the league had crafted itself such a requirement of perfection that it had essentially constrained it's own growth - it's own success. By needing each potential club to be at such a high level of members, money, and organizational structure by the time it took the field, it discouraged people from even trying because the effort needed to succeed was so great that it wasn't worth the time to try. This type of discouragement caused by perfection is everywhere in not only business, but life. It's totally understandable - but also tremendously detrimental to one's goals.
It took time and convincing, but eventually, we were able to relax the rules, right at the time when a tremendous opportunity to market the sport to a new audience came available. The NFL was being broadcast on free TV for the first time in years, and we had HD quality footage to be utilized for a commercial, with enough money in the bank to pay for one. Everything aligned perfectly - but in all honesty, if we as a league hadn't relaxed the barriers to entry, we would have missed this opportunity to grow the league as we did. In one year we added 4 clubs, 5 teams, and doubled our player base. We did this by understanding that the new clubs wouldn't be perfect, and that was OK. Our goal was to get them up and walking first, running second. If we had demanded perfection from the outset, maybe we'd have gotten one more club, maybe one more team, but in all likelihood we'd have just swelled the ranks of the existing clubs with little actual change on the scoreboards or the bank accounts. We developed an entry level competition, to avoid burning people out within their first year, and developed timelines and milestones clubs needed to hit to maintain their status with the league. Six years later, only one of the 9 new clubs that came into being since 2010 has folded (Gippsland), and one other of the original 5 clubs merged with a new one a few miles down the road. The league was set up to grow, and in 6 years saw a tripling in the size of the league.
So where does this leave the conversation of leadership? As GV President, I was very demanding of myself, and still am in my other endeavors. I admit that I am often a perfectionist, and it's hard to fight my own impulses. But I've learned that being perfect, not making mistakes, and worse, not allowing for mistakes, doesn't make for great success as a leader. Striving to be perfect only serves to create anxiety and insecurity. People can see through insecurities, and the business world is only going to amplify anxieties with its total uncertainty. Anxious and insecure leaders don't engender loyal and devoted followers because they don't let people in close enough to build quality relationships.
In my opinion, the role of a leader, be it of a football league or of a small business or a billion dollar corporation, is to have a vision of where the organization should go, have the determination to be willing to overcome obstacles, and the creativity to be able to figure out how to bring as many people along for the ride as possible. The best leaders I've been with know how to give their subordinates the room to fail, support to those who do stumble, and just enough vision and forethought to make people want to see where everything is headed.
In life, so many times there's "analysis paralysis", that is not moving until something is "just right". The problem with this thinking, is that nothing will ever be "just right". There will always be something that can be critiqued, judged, assessed. It's much harder, and takes greater courage to say "ok, it's good enough". But these are abstract concepts, and you dear reader are probably thinking this is just another "bashing perfectionism post" - how does this apply to the real world? Well, think about you and/or your business. Is there something you're trying to do right now, but you haven't yet because it's not "perfect"? Have you ever said to yourself - what would my best friend say about it? Would they say it's good enough?
So often, because something is a labor of love by an individual (or a group), all objectivity gets lost in the pursuit of perfection. Aspects get added on like Christmas ornaments because they all seem like they're needed, when in reality it just ends up toppling over like Charlie Brown's tree. If you're stuck in this perfectionist loop - try to extricate yourself and look at the issue from an outsider perspective. Part of what made my work in GV successful is that I had the outsider perspective before becoming President. I had tried to start a new club and stopped when I saw how hard it was. I knew that I didn't need all those things for the product to be "good enough" to start, but the league couldn't see past its own concerns, understandable as they were.
True leadership then, looks at the product, service, business, organization, whatever and says - "how can we grow a success?" rather than "how do we avoid catastrophe?" That's not to say anyone should ignore risks or avoid creating standards - far from it. There has to be some level of what is and isn't acceptable. However, nothing can be fully insulated from risk and error. Someone once told me, "no matter how much you idiot proof something, the world will build a better idiot." While blunt, it speaks to the immutable truth that everything has flaws. It's knowing how to live with those flaws, and to say to yourself and/or your organization that "we're moving forward with a good enough project/product/process and we'll refine it along the way". That mindset, in time, will lead to real personal and organizational success.
So what do you think? Is perfectionism something you struggle with? How do you challenge yourself and/or your team to overcome the idea of perfect? Have a story to share? Leave one in the comments!
Interested in how SSC can help you with your small business? Click on the contact link to send me an email!
Holy cow it's been a long time since I've put out a post - and with nary a warning, I'm sure my faithful readers were wondering if I would ever post again. Well I must admit things have gotten very busy for me these past few weeks, so I've had less and less time to devote to a good blog post - but at long last I have an interview to share with you all! This week's (month's?) interview subject is Jesse Blitzstein of The Enterprise Center. Jesse and I had the pleasure of working together a few years ago, and I thought his work and organization would be of interest to read. So without further ado, please enjoy 10 questions with Jesse!
Hi Jesse! Thanks so much for taking the time to be my interview subject. So, for those who don't know much about you, can you please describe your organization, your position, and basic responsibilities?
You're welcome Dan! I work at The Enterprise Center (TEC), where I’m our Director of Community Development. The Enterprise Center is a community and economic development nonprofit that has three interrelated areas of focus – we help people grow their small businesses, with a focus on minority and women entrepreneurs; we do small business lending, with a focus on entrepreneurs who may face challenges accessing capital through the traditional financing world; and we do on-the-ground community development work, with a focus on parts of West Philadelphia. My job is tied to this latter part. I help oversee our community engagement and neighborhood revitalization work, including the ongoing revitalization of a neighborhood commercial corridor and the implementation of a neighborhood plan.
Sounds like fulfilling work! So, what made you interested in planning?
I first got interested in city planning and community development during my senior year of college. I took a great class on urban politics, and at the same time I served in a position with the university’s student government where I was a student liaison to the local city council. Both really opened my eyes to the world of planning, policy, and politics at the local level and on an urban scale.
Clearly you went against the stereotype of student government being just a resume builder. And what led you specifically to join TEC?
I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, and when I was finishing I was looking for an opportunity to stay in Philly and work in community development, which is what I focused on within my city planning studies. An opportunity came up with TEC that was not exactly what I wanted, but was a foot in the door with a dynamic organization. I took it and several years later my role has evolved and I’m in a somewhat more ideal position now.
Goes to show you what patience and perseverance can get you if you're in the right place for you. In that vein, what’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 years ago?
Relationships matter. That’s not necessarily something I didn’t know five years ago, it’s just an ongoing lesson throughout my professional career. In this line of work, being smart and knowledgeable from a technical standpoint will only get you so far. You have to develop strong relationships with partners, funders, community stakeholders, and coworkers to really accomplish anything of value. And that’s something that’s hard to teach in planning school, although I would argue that more time could be devoted to cultivating those types of professional soft skills with planning students, on top of the traditional skill, theory, and history training.
Very good points all around. So, if you weren’t in planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into? Why?
That’s a good question! I mean I’ve always wanted to be a professional athlete but . . . I’d just be doing that already if I could, so clearly it’s not that! I would probably still be working with youth in some fashion, which is what I was doing for a couple of years before I went back to school to get a planning degree.
It's not too late Jesse, I'm sure you can get a spot on the professional Curling circuit if you're really keen! Though given that it seems you're unlikely to be leaving the planning world any time soon, what do you find to be the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part might be the strategy development component of what we do, and within that the fact that there are so many gray areas to this type of work. There isn’t necessarily one right way to revitalize a neighborhood, to run a community meeting, or to redevelop a property, for example. There are strategies, best practices, guidelines, and so on. But there is a lot of variability to what we do. Building consensus among community stakeholders, leveraging finite resources, and developing strategies to achieve positive outcomes – it’s all interesting and challenging.
And the least interesting?
The least interesting part is probably the administrative side of the work. Paperwork, reporting out to funders, sitting through meetings – the nonprofit system is an imperfect beast.
I'm sensing a trend about paperwork...
But lets go back to interesting topics - what was something that you were really proud of that you worked on?
I’m going to flashback to graduate school for this. I was and still am proud of the work that my group and I did for our final studio project, where we looked at all the school closings at the time in Philadelphia (this was in 2013). We explored possible reuses for the school buildings, and beyond that we tried to think through how the city and school district could bring different policies and strategies to bear to reactivate these sites and mitigate some of the ill effects of closing these schools, so that the buildings didn’t just languish as vacant and become eyesores in their communities, many of which were already quite upset about the school closings in the first place. The work was interesting and collaborative. While city agencies and politicians ultimately ignored most of our recommendations, it’s been very interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) happened with the shuttered school buildings in the five years since then.
When you say interesting - what do you mean? Anything in line with what you recommended or wildly off base?
At the time, we recommended that other city departments and agencies be more involved in coordinating the disposition process, which to some extent happened (PIDC helped manage the process for the school district); but in particular we also recommended that the city make a concerted effort to to use tools like pre-existing development incentives and already-completed neighborhood plans to stimulate and guide the reuse of sites, particularly in the weaker neighborhood real estate markets. I'd say that never totally came to fruition.
More specifically, I think several of the buildings are in the midst of conversions to housing in one form or another, or will be soon, which is kind of what we expected. Three different sites (two in West Philly and one by Temple) were acquired by universities and demolished for new development associated with those universities, which we also anticipated. At least one, Bok in South Philly (which is a beast of a building) is being reused in some creative ways, although not without some controversy regarding gentrification. Lastly, the sites that my partner and I had looked at for our case study, Vaux and Reynolds and the area around them in North Philly, are actually being repurposed in a somewhat similar manner to what we had recommended! They are part of the Philadelphia Housing Authority's Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods initiative (which is a controversial initiative unto itself, but that's a whole 'nother story!).
Schools in Philly are always a delicate subject, and certainly the urban planning around them is even more so. Given what you've seen the last few years, is the Philadelphia region right now a good place to be a planner?
Tough question. I think it’s a good place in the sense that there is a lot going on in the city and region. Philadelphia is one of the largest major cities in the country, and it has an amazing history and a great downtown. It is experiencing exciting growth and newfound real estate development, and yet faces serious challenges related to poverty, inequity, gentrification, and the ongoing effects of decades of disinvestment. These are challenges that are interesting yet daunting from a planning perspective. But as for the job market for planning-related work in the Philadelphia area, that might be a different story! I think the job pool is somewhat constrained for planners.
I might tend to agree with your latter statement, though hopefully things loosen up as all that development keeps happening. Pivoting, you mentioned gentrification and that's often a major issue planners have to address both publicly and privately. In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
I think the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now is the ability to affect change. To be not just planers but doers. To take what are often complex concepts and analyses and make them digestible for constituents and policymakers so that smart city and community building can occur. And to do this in a way that is mutually beneficial to the diverse populations that make up our cities and communities, not just to the benefit of the wealthiest or most influential among us.
How do you mean? And how do you suggest planners be better at being doers?
I think the planning stereotype of "plans sitting on the shelf collecting dust" exists for a reason. Too often it actually happens. So, for example, if you're a planning consulting firm that does neighborhood plans, how are you sticking with an organization or neighborhood to make sure aspects of the plan actually get implemented? Could you alter your business model or fee structure to actually build in some ongoing technical assistance after the plan itself is completed? I think another specific example I see in Philadelphia is around zoning, where so much effort has been made in the last decade to revise the zoning code and rezone swaths of the city, and yet so little planning support is offered to the everyday residents who deal with zoning variance requests from developers under the "Registered Community Organization" system that came with the new zoning code. The Citizens Planning Institute is a great program, but I'd argue it doesn't have the bandwidth to really empower community members all over the city to more effectively shape their own neighborhoods, from a planning and development perspective.
Unfortunately in Philadelphia, like many other cities, planners are hamstrung by the local political processes, resulting in barriers to implement these seemingly smart plans and policies. I think one thing the planning field could do though (at least based on my experience) is to do a better job of integrating the study of politics and policy into the planning school curriculum, so that professional planners are prepared not just to conduct analyses, design sites, make maps, and run proformas, but also to navigate political systems and influence policymaking.
And that last bit, about navigating political systems and influencing policy ties back neatly to your earlier point about the importance of relationships in planning. Final question, and it's an easy one – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in 2017?
That’s easy – the best thing I did in Philadelphia in 2017 was get married! I met my wife in planning school and that’s by far the best thing I got out of it.
Now THAT'S an important relationship. John Landis take note! Thanks Jesse and all the best to you and your lovely wife.
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General thoughts and musings about the work SSC Solutions does and other things happening in and around Philadelphia