I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Small Business "Crawl" With Congressman Matt Gaetz in Pensacola

Jim Sweida, president of Blue Morning Gallery in Pensacola (brown jacket) takes a moment to discuss his business with Rep. Matt Gaetz, myself, and representatives of various Internet companies on Wednesday, January 24, 2018 in Pensacola

Today was interesting.  The event was a "small-business crawl" through several different downtown Pensacola businesses.  In attendance, Representative Matt Gaetz, officials from Amazon, Google, Facebook, the Internet Association (trade group based in Washington DC), numerous members of the local press, the Chamber of Commerce, and myself.

Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks with Bluejay's Bakery owner
Justine Gudmundson-McCain 
We started out with a visit to  Bluejay's Bakery on Palafox.  The owner, Justine Gudmundson-McCain, was behind the counter busily preparing for the day ahead. Suddenly there were 20 people with cameras in the small lobby space of her bakery.  The discussion that ensued was led by Rep. Gaetz-and it centered on the internet, and specifically how Bluejay's uses the internet locally to grow
their business.  According to the owner, Justine, she uses Facebook and quite a bit of Instagram to drive customers to her location--primarily using posts that are not paid advertisements but that feature tasty creations from her bakery.  She also stated that she utilizes the internet to grow her core niche in the market which is Wedding Cakes and specialty baked goods. She is also not opposed to sending certain baked goods out across the country.  "I sent some items to family over the holidays, to Ohio and North Carolina-primarily to see how it would hold up" she stated. When asked how that turned out, she said "The items I sent to Ohio arrived in great shape...the North Carolina items, not so much.." On our way out, we were treated to freshly baked muffins!

Armored Frog owner Joe Sinkovich talks internet marketing
for his high-end furniture manufacturing company
Next up on the tour was Armored Frog in downtown Pensacola.  This business specializes in high-
end, custom designed furniture.  "If it were not for the internet, we wouldn't be here today" stated Founder and CEO Joe Sinkovich when asked about how the power of the internet  boosts his business.  He provided a summary of his social media sites' metrics to Rep. Gaetz, complete with a report of all the internet activity, email marketing, email opens, returning visits, volume, etc.  "Your email open percentage is 30%--I'd kill for those numbers!" Rep. Gaetz exclaimed after viewing the Armored Frog's internet marketing stats.  According to Sinkovich, the biggest challenge is getting exposure of his brand to the high-end furniture purchaser.  "We're not a name that people equate with our product-but we are working on that and the internet is an important part of our strategy."  When I asked him about shipping the furniture--and being high-end would it require assembly?-he quipped "No, no assembly, it comes ready to use.  We send them in crates, some so large they have actually been used as tree-houses!"  Sinkovich is interested in expanding his furniture kiosks across the country and he is using the internet to push this initiative.

We next entered Blue Morning Gallery.  This is an art cooperative, run and funded by the artists who's work is displayed and sold in the store.  President of the gallery, Jim Sweida, gave the attendees a brief history of the gallery:  "We have been here for 20 years--we've been here longer than most any of the other businesses on Palafox" he stated with pride.  Sweida, a photographer and one of the

 artists who's work adorns the walls of the gallery, has been president of the cooperative for the past 7 years.  When asked about how the internet helps his business, Sweida explained that the gallery did not have a large budget for advertising--including internet paid advertising.  "We have a web-page, and we do great business during the gallery nights, but half of all our sales are from out of town tourists"  The representatives  from both Google and Facebook discussed sales and marketing strategy with Sweida, and much of the discussion was quite interesting.  "Let's be honest, we are not a high-end gallery.   Most of the wealthy Pensacola art buyers go to New York or Miami to purchase their art" Sweida conceded.  "But we have great products and our prices are reasonable--this is why we have been here, successful, for so long."

Rishy Studer discusses sales and marketing strategy with
Rep. Matt Gaetz and others in her shop The Bodacious
Olive in Downtown Pensacola
The final stop of this small business crawl was a trip to the Bodacious Family of Shops, and a stop the Bodacious Olive.  This business was founded more than a decade ago by Quint and Rishy Studer at the corner of Main and Palafox streets in Downtown Pensacola.  As we were about to enter the shop, Rep. Gaetz told the group he always has to stop and take a selfie at the Bodacious Olive and send it to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.  "Speaker Ryan and I are the only two members of congress that have a "Bodacious Olive" in their district--there is one here in Pensacola and there is one in Janesville, Wisconsin, in Speaker Ryan's District" (Quint and Rishy Studer have family in Janesville, and are from Wisconsin and have a strong connection to that community as well as to Pensacola)  After several pictures were snapped-we moved into the shop and headed upstairs for a conversation with founder Rishy Studer and digital marketing director Mallory Studer.  Rep. Gaetz asked how the internet had helped sales at the business.  "We use social media daily, to bring customers in to the shop and let them know what is happening.  We put videos up of the cooking classes we offer, and we are always looking for ways to engage the public" said Mallory.  When asked about how online sales were going as a percentage of total sales, Mallory said "One of our focuses this year will be to grow that segment of our business."  I had the opportunity to ask Rishy Studer what the county could do to help small businesses like hers.  "Tell people to think locally and to support local small businesses"  she continued "We employ local residents, and so we count on the support of the local community to keep us going."  After some additional questions and answers, the group began to depart.

It was eye-opening to me to see just how powerful the internet is becoming for local small business start-ups of every type--it is extremely important according to all of these small business owners. Kudos to Rep. Gaetz for organizing this very unique and interesting event, and I appreciated the opportunity to be invited and to attend.

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