There’s a lot of good in this article. And we’re honored that Basecamp is held up as an example of something positive happening in Chicago. But the notion that it’s now Chicago’s time to grab someone else’s torch is where it falls apart for me.
It’s certainly true there’s more entrepreneurial excitement in Chicago these days. More optimism, more opportunity, etc. This is great.
But what’s with all this this fetishizing of Silicon Valley? To be next in line to be them? What about being us? What about being original? The Silicon Valley approach is original for Silicon Valley, but what’s our original approach? Something that’s expansive, rather than restrictive. Following someone else’s playbook is always limiting.
Why not build something here that’s so fresh that eventually other cities want to model themselves after us? What would that look like? 10 years now we’d be far better off if other cities were saying “We want to be the next Chicago” than “Chicago is still trying to be like them”. Unfortunately today if you Google “The next Chicago” the first story is about how citizens in Richmond Virginia are afraid their town is becoming like Chicago.
Some suggest Silicon Valley stands for innovation. Ok — I’m into that. But if we’re just trying to be like them, where’s the innovation in that? That’s the opposite of innovation. So to be innovative, we want to copy? That gets you to me-too, not us-instead.
Further, why follow a playbook that leads to oppressive rents and a workaholism culture? A race towards pumped-up billion-dollar valuations rather than a thousand paying customers? Why salivate over so many profitless-revenue and unsustainable business models? Why build companies to be sold rather than ones built to prosper independently?
What’s so unattractive about stability and make-more-than-you-spend economics? The economics the pizza shop, dry cleaner, autobody shop, and restaurant down the street live by? If they can survive like that — some for 25 years or more — why can’t a tech company with far more favorable cost structures?
I get it. Rapid job creation. Pumping millions/billions into startups that are hiring is a quick way to show things are happening. But if we can’t build sustainable businesses built on solid fundamental economic principles, those will all be temp jobs. Long temp jobs, but temp jobs nonetheless. That’s a political move, not a purposeful move.
Of course Silicon Valley has some wonderful success stories reaching back decades. No doubt — amazing things have been created there, and I admire and respect many of those stories. I’m a happy customer of a few of them for sure. But a successful Chicago doesn’t need to be predicated on the next Apple or Tesla being here. That’s limiting.
Further, it’s too easy to assume that there’s a formula that any city can apply to generate those kinds of businesses. Specific inputs that always produce specific outputs. If we do what they’ve done, then we’ll get what they have. It doesn’t appear to work that way. Is it just a matter of eventually, or is it a matter of place and moment? That places are unique, and intangibles make the difference? That moments can’t be manufactured? That luck is the largest variable in the equation?
Great places are unique places. New York is uniquely New York. San Francisco is uniquely San Francisco. LA is uniquely LA. New Orleans is uniquely New Orleans. New York isn’t like LA, and LA isn’t like San Francisco, and Seattle isn’t like Boston, etc. Silicon Valley didn’t become “the next whatever”, it developed into itself. New York isn’t striving to be Rome, it’s thrilled with being New York. But Chicago?
If Chicago is going to follow anyone’s philosophical lead, let it be Simone Biles: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.” That’s confidence. We could use more of that here.
I remember the last time Chicago got frothy about the closest thing we’d had to a Silicon Valley success story: Groupon. The city rallied around it. Everyone hailed as the fastest growing company ever, and it raced to a $1 billion dollar valuation on waves of institutional investment. We celebrated around fastest growing, not profitable, not sustainable. And now just a few years later, you don’t hear many people talking about Groupon anymore — except when they need to show an example like the one below:
(Full disclosure: I was on the Groupon board prior to them going public, but was asked to leave after a year.)
I hope Chicago avoids the trap. That we don’t get carried away by bullshit metrics, and wannabe stories. Rather, we build more sustainable, profitable companies. Companies that grow steadily and strong, not rapidly and weak. Companies that treat people exceptionally well, and create environments where people can do their best work of their lives — and have great lives at the same time.
Cullinan’s Stadium Club and Beverly Records sit next door to each other in the Chicago neighborhood of Morgan Park. The owners of the two businesses have been friendly since Dan Cullinan opened his bar and grill in 1989. But even Dan couldn’t imagine how John Dreznes of Beverly Records would rush in to help when Cullinan’s Stadium Club ran into financial trouble in late 2016.
WAILIN: Western Avenue is the longest continuous street in Chicago. It runs north-south for 24 miles, spanning the entire length of the city. When you take Western to Chicago’s southern end, you end up in the neighborhood of Morgan Park.
DAN CULLINAN: Pretty much my whole life has been on Western. My name is Dan Cullinan, I am the owner of Cullinan’s Stadium Club.
JOHN DREZNES: I remember Dan when I was 17 years old and I tried to buy a beer in there and he kicked me out. My name is John Dreznes, I’m part of the family that owns Beverly Record Shop on Western Avenue.
WAILIN: Dan’s bar and John’s record store have been next door neighbors on Western Avenue since 1989, when Dan opened Cullinan’s Stadium Club at the age of 23.
DAN: You hear people complaining about their neighbors and I mean, I really lucked out. This has been a great relationship. When things were tough and you needed a little extra hand with some room in your garbage ’cause you can’t afford that pickup, they’ve always left their lid open for me, so to speak, probably more often than we want to talk about, but it was just one of those things that you know, it’s that same cup of sugar that you borrow from your neighbor that the door’s always open.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, the story of a friendship between two long-time business neighbors and how one stepped in when the survival of the other was in jeopardy. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
JOHN: He was driving down Western Avenue and he saw—it was called Beverly Records and Novelties and he saw a For Sale sign, so he stopped.
WAILIN: John’s talking about his grandfather, who bought the shop for John’s grandmother in 1967 to get her mind off their sons being drafted for military service.
JOHN: That night, sitting around at dinner, he says, “Christine, I bought a record shop but I need someone to run it. Can you run it?” She says, “Yeah, I guess I can run it.” She took to it like a fish to water.
Today John’s father runs the day-to-day operations at Beverly Records. John is at the shop part of the time and also DJs weddings and events. In fact, the staff at the record store has provided the music for a lot of parties in the neighborhood.
DAN: In my family, I’m the youngest of six kids, so when the nieces and nephews were starting to get married, it was Beverly Records was always DJing. I didn’t think there was any other DJ that worked, other than these guys.
WAILIN: Beverly Records has gone through the boom times of the 70s and 80s and the lean times of the 90s, when CDs replaced vinyl. In the last 10 years, the store has been swept up in the vinyl renaissance that’s boosted sales of records and turntables. Today the shop gets lines around the block for special releases on Record Store Day, which takes place every April on a Saturday. Big events like Record Store Day have also created opportunities for John and Dan’s businesses to team up. John’s shop is small, so he sets up tables of records in Dan’s bar to accommodate the larger crowds.
JOHN: We pack the bar next door with $2 records. And it gives those people who are kind of getting into the hobby a chance to experiment. Spend the day, have a cheeseburger, drink a beer. And then you get the people who are spending all day in here, they want to show off what they have with their buddies, so they’ll go next door, sit down, grab a bar stool. They’ll go through their collections together. It’s kind of neat to watch.
WAILIN: Besides the excitement of Record Store Day, there have been other signs of activity on John and Dan’s stretch of Western Avenue. Dan was excited in 2015 when the Chicago Park District opened a new indoor ice rink and gymnastics center across the street on Western. He wanted to rebrand his bar and grill as the kind of place where families could eat after high school hockey practice. There would be a new look, a new kids’ menu and even a new name: Cullinan’s Center Ice. Dan lined up a partner to help with the remodel. But then, in December of 2016, he got a visit from the state tax agency.
DAN: It was a sales tax audit. It wasn’t that it wasn’t paid. They just didn’t think they got paid enough. I met with the liquor commission, met with the department of revenue. Basically, they said, “Figure something out in the next two weeks,” and within those two weeks, at the eleventh hour, the partner kinda backs out due to other interests. I didn’t think it was going to happen. I just said, “Well, we’ll worry about this after the holiday.” And lo and behold, two weeks and two days later, they came knocking at the door saying, “We have to close you.”
I was at home, which is about two minutes away, and it was a friend of mine that was behind the bar. And he called me right away and I said, “I’ll be right there.” It was end of lunch, so there was only a couple people in there and they allowed them to finish.
WAILIN: The Department of Revenue put up bright green signs on his windows saying WARNING in all caps across the top. Underneath that, it said, “This business’ certificate of registration is hereby REVOKED.” Revoked was in all caps too. Dan was able to get into his bar to maintain it and make sure the pipes didn’t freeze and burst in the cold weather. But his business was closed, and he didn’t know what to do. He now had employees who were out of work just weeks before Christmas, and it seemed like the signs on the windows brought out all the busybodies in the neighborhood. Dan said he went into a partial seclusion.
DAN: It was embarrassing, you know. For every one of those phone calls that wanted to help, there was someone that just wanted a scoop too. You just decided, let me figure this out on my own.
JOHN: When the business closed, nobody knew what happened, okay? I’m looking at, you know, the big green sign and the emptiness I felt. You felt it here. It felt so lonely without the bar open and every day you come in here and it was like, it was almost like something’s off, you know.
I’ve read a little bit about you know GoFundMe and this and that. So you know I went online and I just typed it in, maybe, maybe this will work.
WAILIN: Without talking to Dan or knowing the exact circumstances behind the closure, John set up a campaign on GoFundMe, the online fundraising site.
JOHN : I knew if I went to Dan and said I said, “Hey Dan, why don’t we all help you out?” He would say, “Don’t you dare.” What happened was there’s a local newspaper, DNAinfo, had picked up on it and then they wrote a story about it and that’s kind of what brought in the publicity for the campaign.
DAN: After the first couple days of being in seclusion, I didn’t return too many calls because I had to figure out what I was gonna do and a friend of mine came over and said that there’s an editor of the newspaper or something that was trying to get ahold of me, and you really should return his call. And he did ask me what my thought was about the GoFundMe page. I said I really couldn’t answer, I mean, I wasn’t even sure what it was. I wasn’t real familiar with the concept of GoFundMe and the little bit I knew about it, I definitely felt that that’s geared to where there’s a death of a child or major surgeries of a child that, I mean, I never thought past that.
WAILIN: John didn’t know what kind of money Dan needed, so he just set the fundraising goal at $25,000. Two thousand dollars came in on the first day and word kept spreading, especially after the story was published.
JOHN: After I read the story I kind of like, is Dan going to be mad, or…? So I says, “Dan, I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to you, but there’s a website that we’re trying to raise money for you,” and I know he didn’t understand what I was talking about. So we got through it, and I explained what was happening. It was a phone call to warn of the oncoming slaught of phone calls that he was gonna get, so I didn’t want him to be too surprised.
DAN: By the time I was able to, you know, siphon through it all in my mind, I had gotten friends that I grew up with and other business owners that have approached me right at that time and said, “Let it go. You can’t do anything about it. It’s something that people want to do and they’re going to do it whether you’re accepting of it or not.”
WAILIN: Within a week, the GoFundMe campaign had brought in $14,265 from 185 donors. Dan reopened Cullinan’s Stadium Club at the end of December.
DAN: When I got back with the license and it was like “It’s A Wonderful Life” when they all started pouring into George Bailey’s house, and being a favorite movie of mine, at the time of year, and the saying that was “Remember, no man is a failure if he has friends,” I’m like—I never wanted that to be my slogan, but I’m sure proud of it and just proud of the fact that a lot of these years that you kind of wondered if you left an impact on people, somewhere along the line you must have done something right.
[A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town!]
You know, I look forward to the time when I can help somebody out in a way like this because it will never be forgotten. And since we’ve reopened, seeing these faces that don’t really get out that much because they have tuitions and mortgages, showing support in any way they could to say thanks, I met my wife at your bar and we can’t imagine it not being here and I really had to totally turn around in my mind of just everything—restoring faith in humanity and what John did, I mean, I would never have imagined.
JOHN: Don’t give me the credit. I’m not the one. it’s your patrons. It’s the people that you know and those business relationships and those friendly faces that come in, are the ones that give. Maybe I supplied the catalyst or the easy way to do it by setting it up, but no, I didn’t raise all that money, Dan. You did.
WAILIN: Dan’s close call has given him a fresh perspective on what he can do with the bar and grill. The rebranding he had envisioned in 2015 might not happen, but he’s already planning some small changes, like doing rollback menus on Wednesday nights where food is at 1989 prices, and offering a Friday night fish fry all year round instead of just during Lent.
DAN: It has definitely brought people back in to see what’s going on. Maybe they live further north on Western that they’d have to cross 10 or 12 bars to get back here again, well they’re doing it, so it’s giving me another chance at you know, revitalizing the place and I’m very lucky. Again, not uh, not that I want that to happen again for that reason, but we made something good out of something bad.
WAILIN: Dan and John have a lot of ideas about how else they could work together, too. Maybe a trivia night at the bar with a music round, where John would play records and give away gift certificates to his store as prizes. Or a karaoke night where Beverly Records would stay open a little later than usual so people can come next door and buy an album to sing along to.
DAN: These are things that given a 12 pack of Miller Lite, we could probably come up with about 30 different other things too, but these are things that businesses can complement each other and, you know, maybe give those days that need a little bit of extra help, because it’s too cold and nobody wants to go out.
WAILIN: John and Dan anticipate that the next few years will still be challenging. Dan will probably be subject to more audits going forward, and both of them are concerned about the state’s fiscal situation. Illinois is in its second year without a full budget, and this kind of economic uncertainty stalls investment and makes it difficult for small businesses to borrow money. Dan thinks the state might have been more willing to work with him on the tax issue if it weren’t in such dire financial straits. The support system that has remained in tact is the one in the neighborhood that links small businesses and customers along Western Avenue.
JOHN: As Illinois struggles with their economy, it puts stress on every single portion of the business, of every business. So any small business has a lot of these unknown costs that go along with doing business here in the city and in the state but we love the city, we love the state, so this is a temporary thing. We’ve been here for 50 years. It’ll get better. We’re in for the long haul. We’ll get through it.
DAN: You really look at the community that we’ve both grown up in, and you can explain it all you want to someone who’s not from this community, and they won’t get it. Not to say anything why they wouldn’t get it, other than unless you’ve experienced it all your life. You know, it’s when somebody dies, the outpouring of support, you can’t fight it off. It’s there and they’re gonna hold your hand until it’s done and until the next one comes up and then they’ll do the same thing for the next. It really is the greatest feeling of all.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. I put together an email newsletter that comes out every other Tuesday, when we release new episodes. I do a little round-up of interesting stories from newspapers, magazines and other podcasts about longevity in business and careers. I also include a link to episode transcripts. If you want to sign up for the newsletter, go to thedistance.com and scroll down to enter your email address. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/the distance.