• John Walker

Doing Business in Manhattan



Two months ago I moved my consulting business to Manhattan. Here are some observations and what I've learned so far.


Manhattan is full of gigantic businesses and some surprising small ones

The headquarters of Citibank is Citigroup Center, a 915’ tall building on Lexington Avenue. Banks like this one are the supertankers of global capitalism and Manhattan is full of them. But Manhattan also has small businesses that have carved out lasting niches amidst the white-hot competition. Neighborhood pharmacies - with their tiny retail storefronts and trusted neighborhood histories- are one example


Where I live in Washington Heights there’s one called St. Jesus Pharmacy. This pharmacy is 35 years old and it serves many older clients from the neighborhood. In February it got the Moderna vaccine to administer to patients over 60. The pharmacist there, Yolanda Melendez, estimates that over 80% of her customers have gotten the shot, in part because of the trust they have in this neighborhood fixture.


Manhattan offers huge opportunities and high barriers

Restaurants in Manhattan pay around $120/square foot in rent. But they have enormous opportunities to win customers simply because so many walk by every day. That’s Manhattan business in a nutshell. Big risk. Big reward.


Beyond high costs, regulations here are thorny. I just learned that when a new business starts operating in New York County, they have to run newspaper ads for six weeks announcing their presence. Huh? It's an old regulation that has stayed on the books because it makes money for newspapers. Not fun, but part of doing business in Manhattan. It’s not easy to get a foothold here but having one is valuable.


Talented people running at full speed

So what are the people like? Here are some impressions.


“What do you do?” is one of the first questions I often get asked. Many people come here from other places for work so when they say “I’m an attorney,” that’s what they came here for. Work is a big part of Manhattan life and it’s a big part of personal identity.


Also, I’ve noticed that people work with intensity and they’re not afraid to say they want to make a lot of money. Not too many people are phoning it in. There’s too much competition for that. And there are too many talented people ready to take your place if you don’t excel. Plus, the rewards of success are visible everywhere- what you can buy, what you can eat, and where you can live- and that's motivating.


The other thing is that the businesses here are often the best at what they do. The guy across the hall from me works on Broadway and the woman next door is at The New York Times. These are two people who I’ve met somewhat randomly and yet I have no doubt that each of them is a top performer in their field.


So my impression is that Manhattan is full of talented people running at full speed.


COVID-19 and the Delta variant- Are we opening or closing?

On August 21, Mayor Bloomberg took the stage at a free concert in Central Park that was meant to kick off the grand reopening of the city. The concert started with a burst of energy and optimism but by 7:30 Barry Manilow got rained off the stage in the middle of At the Copa. It was an apt metaphor for the reopening of the city.


Regarding the pandemic, it’s not clear whether we’re making progress or slipping backwards. People are diligent about wearing masks, and most attractions are open, but just when white collar workers started to come back to work, things went sideways and now many office re-openings are delayed.


For me this means that just when I would have liked to start networking in person, I can’t do it. In-person business events are not happening.


Is living here a business advantage?

It certainly used to be. At its heart, New York is a giant commercial marketplace where capital found labor and sellers found buyers. But much of that has gone online. And with COVID, that trend has accelerated.


But here’s the thing. There’s a certain spirit here that I don’t feel anywhere else. It’s the spirit of competition, the spirit of high hurdles and big rewards, the spirit that comes from being around people who are the best at what they do. And when I’m here, I feel I have to raise my game.


Is that an advantage? It certainly seems like it.


This post was written by John Walker, Principal at J. Walker Marketing, a marketing consultancy. Contact John directly to discuss your marketing challenges.