Williamsburg is often associated with hipsters, HBO’s "Girls" and long rides on the L train.
But after finding initial success at their flagship establishment in Scranton, PA, Matt Byrne and co-founder Matthew Rosetti found the area to be the perfect location to open their second specialty running store.
To highlight emerging businesses like Brooklyn Running Company and their leaders, we've partnered with Intuit, makers of QuickBooks, to talk with small business owners from a variety of different fields. During these conversations, they reveal what it takes to get started, overcome obstacles and face challenges along the road to success.
Byrne sat down for the fifth interview in our series (you can read the previous Q&A in our series here), to weigh in on how fostering a community around his business has helped it thrive.
HP: Why did you decide to start your own business?
As a track and cross country runner through high school and college, I ended up in Philadelphia for college, then again for training reasons when I was training for a marathon. I started working at Philadelphia Runner in 2004, first as a part-time employee, and eventually became a full-time employee. I was with them for six years and learned a lot about the business. When I moved back to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised, I was deciding between becoming a schoolteacher and giving the specialty running store business a shot. I certainly thought there was a void [of specialty running stores] in the Scranton area.
I opened Scranton Running Company in 2010 with my business partner, Matthew Rosetti, who was located in New York City at the time. We built a business plan together for Scranton, and it worked. After about two years we were very curious as to what our second store would be.
HP: After success in Scranton, you opened your second store in Williamsburg, New York. How did you decide where to expand?
My business partner, who was located in New York City at the time, stumbled upon, or got wind of, the “Williamsburg boom.” So he started to poke around. After examination we realized there wasn’t a running specialty store in the area for five miles, and that’s a long way. We fell in love with a building off Bedford Avenue. It had been a church, an art studio and a whole variety of things, and has held its integrity really well. We thought that with Williamsburg’s demographic of young professionals, we could bring a nice offering to the area. So we thought, why not make it work right here?
HP: What were the risks involved when you decided to start your first business venture in Scranton?
I was a full-time manager at Philadelphia Runner, so I guess I was, in a way, at risk of leaving a solid job. In essence, the real risk was that on paper the Scranton market didn’t show that it would take to a niche business like specialty running. When we did our homework and research, everything pointed to an older demographic with a lower disposable income, and a high unemployment rate. If you put it all on paper, it seemed like a big risk.
HP: Since the demographics don't line up, to what do you owe your financial success in Scranton?
We let the intangible aspects sway our decision -- like the idea of bringing a community feel to the area and having quality customer service. We made those elements a strong priority and believed maybe they would tip the scales to the other end of the spectrum, to success. We thought, ‘If we can do our job really, really well, resonate with the community and have great customer service, we can make it.’
I believe the main reason for our success in Scranton is our customer service. We take the shoe fitting process very seriously and the word has spread. Having very customer-friendly store procedures in place also helps. We have a 'No questions asked' return policy, and if a customer has a special request, we do our best to fulfill it.
HP: Did you face the same risks when you expanded to Brooklyn?
When we opened our second location in Williamsburg, one giant risk was shaking the secure foundation of the existing store. When we opened Brooklyn Running Company for business, we put the cash flow [of Scranton] in jeopardy. We already had a successful business in Scranton that was generating cash at a pretty early onset. That was the biggest risk, but we measured the risk against the reward and we thought Williamsburg was certainly showing promise. While it’s still a little early to tell, we feel we made the right call and a sound decision.
HP: What were the challenges you faced between opening in Scranton, to opening in Brooklyn?
The challenge [in Brooklyn] was connecting the tangible product, the sneaker, to an intangible idea: A healthy lifestyle. That’s what we strove to do at Brooklyn Running Company. We looked at other stores and did a lot of research, and noticed the stores that were doing really well not only had great customer service and a knowledgeable staff, but also had created an environment that supported a lifestyle change. We built our business by putting on events, constantly organizing races and supporting that community.
We've partnered with the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative (BGI) during their bike tour. We became a sponsor for that event and [BGI] utilized our store for their event packet pick-up. North Brooklyn Runners, a local running club has also provided us with some opportunities. We've hosted a few of their events already, and we're co-sponsoring their annual track and field event, The Mccarren Park Track Classic. Of course, a good old pub run once in a while seems to be a customer favorite.
HP: Did you receive any valuable advice about running a business, or any that really stuck with you?
Yes -- to hold on to my equity. When we were structuring the equity of the business, a co-worker reminded me that the company valuation is not just about evaluating dollars, but time spent, too. There’s no rule that says whether you should hold on to 20 percent or 80 percent of the business and put the rest of up for grabs.
On that co-worker’s recommendation I realized that the company was not going to move forward without my efforts, and I shouldn’t give the majority of my equity away, even though the thought of investor money was appealing.
HP: What advice do you have for other small business owners?
Trust your gut. Don’t be so influenced by what others in the industry are doing or say you should do.
HP: What is your favorite part of co-owning a business?
My favorite part is the freedom to have my own schedule. However, since I have the freedom of making my own schedule, I work 80 hours a week. I like being in control, especially when it comes to something I’m very passionate about.
I love talking about running. I’ve run hundreds of races over the years. I’ve traveled overseas for races and events. I feel like I know what runners like and respond to. In that regard, when it comes to this business, being in control is very important to me.
HP: What are the most important qualities you think a small business owner should possess?
Don’t feel like you’re going to be able to delegate everything right away. If you delegate into the wrong hands, you’re only going to go backwards. Delegate only when human resources are ready to take on the task. If they aren’t, you have to be willing to take it on yourself.
Additionally, if you’re not willing to put the hours in and do whatever’s necessary -- potentially sacrificing other parts of your life to do so -- running a business may not be for you.
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