We asked three San Diego business owners for their take on the region’s business climate Tuesday. Their answers fit the one constant we’ve learned while trying to understand how hard it is for businesses to operate here: Everyone’s got a different perspective.

The trio of business owners Tuesday gathered at Red Door Interactive in East Village to talk about the triumphs, challenges and tough decisions they’ve made during their time in San Diego.

Red Door CEO Reid Carr, whose company provides marketing services for other companies, was first up.

Carr, a Voice of San Diego board member, founded his company about a decade ago and has worked out of three downtown spaces. He talked about how one business-boosting nonprofit helped him at one location: The Downtown San Diego Partnership helped Red Door clear human feces from its front entrance on a regular basis.

But Carr, whose business has been repeatedly rated one of San Diego’s fastest growing companies, said he faced his most significant roadblock when he tried to move to a spacious new office at 10th Avenue and J Street.

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Carr said the downtown redevelopment agency, which handled permitting, essentially said the changes the company proposed for its new digs weren’t going to fly – and Red Door couldn’t be in the space it wanted.

This happened after Red Door had already secured permits make upgrades to its 10th Avenue office and had actually started the construction work.

“I felt like San Diego didn’t want us,” Carr said.

Ultimately, Red Door switched up its floor plan and stayed in San Diego. But Carr said the experience stuck with him. He was excited do business in San Diego and invest in the region but didn’t feel like the city cared much about keeping him here.

He’s convinced San Diego needs to do more to support and attract large companies that can foster the creation and success of many other businesses.

Fellow business owner Stephen Walters, a self-described serial entrepreneur, said the city’s business climate hasn’t created roadblocks for him.

His experience has been that it’s fairly easy to start a business in San Diego.

He said life experience has partly shaped that perspective. He was born with a condition that prevented him from walking without a special shoe and a brace.

Walters overcame that challenge and now walks normally, an experience he said taught him he could accomplish anything he sets his mind to.

And in Walters’s family, entrepreneurship was the thing to do. Since age 16, Walters said he’s help found least seven companies, everything from a limo service to PCS World Network, the tech company he now owns.

Walters said founding companies hasn’t been particularly challenging here and that’s been ideal for someone most excited about starting new companies versus sticking with one for decades.

“As an entrepreneur, I can’t get stuck in one business for too long,” Walters said.

Walters said his successes have come down to connections with both customers and employees. For example, Walters said his current company primarily serves small and micro businesses and winning over one customer can often lead to others.

“It’s all about people,” Walters said.

That means giving back too.

Walters said his son was murdered a few years ago, and that served as an impetus for Walters to do more to help draw newcomers into San Diego business ecosystem.

Two years ago, he founded Community Business Incubator, a nonprofit that aims to provide mentorship and training to youth in underserved communities to help them become San Diego’s future entrepreneurs.

It’s crucial to foster entrepreneurship in communities with little investment to show children and young teens they’re capable of being business owners, he said.

Next presenter Lori Steele, founder of Everyone Counts, said she’s also on a mission to make a major impact but never imagined being a San Diego business owner.

She founded her company in 1997 after attending a conference where attendees raised some big questions about election reform.

Steele decided she wanted to be part of the solution. Her company aims to transform election processes across the world with its voting software.

At the time she founded Everyone Counts, it didn’t occur to Steele to move elsewhere.

“I didn’t think much about San Diego regulations because I was so focused on changing the world,” Steele said.

The realities of San Diego and California haven’t always been ideal for Everyone Counts. Steele said the state has long resisted voting upgrades like those her company offers, such as voting by phone, even though her company’s services have been implemented in more than 165 countries.

San Diego’s relatively paltry direct flight offerings to both national and international destinations have translated into a lot more hours in the air, Steele said.

She estimated she’s flown roughly 220,000 miles this year.

“A lot of that is because we’re not in a good airport city,” Steele said.

But a home base in San Diego has also made it easier to lure workers from big tech companies in the Bay Area and elsewhere that would rather live in San Diego. San Diego’s universities have also proven to be a great source of talent, Steele said.

Steele’s bottom line? She never set out to be a San Diego entrepreneur but she is – and she’s thrilled with that despite the challenges.

All photos by Dustin Michelson.

This is part of our quest digging into the difficulties – real or perceived – of doing business in San Diego. Check out the previous story in our series, Businesses Are in the Dark on New Lighting Rules, and the next, The Great Uncertainty Facing California Businesses.

    This article relates to: Business, Economy, News, Quest, Quest: Business Climate

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    jeff scott
    jeff scott subscriber

    Enough with promoting so-called "nonprofit" businesses. The "profit" they make goes to wages, an expense. Thus they do not "profit".  It is a scam.  There are very few selfless , non profit businesses existing today.

    Jeffrey Harding
    Jeffrey Harding subscriber

    As a business owner of a local recycling company we have to deal with so much overlap in regulations.  

    Fire Department shows up annually to inspect us due to our propane tanks ($550), the County of San Diego does a very similar inspection because of our propane tanks ($500),  the City of San Diego hires a contractor for stormwater inspection ($250), the County of San Diego shows up for Stormwater inspections ($1900).  State of CA Weighmaster to inspect our scale ($600) and County permit for our scale ($200) .  Get the idea?  Overlap for no apparent reason....    It's not so much about what the City does but what the region as a whole does with all the overlapping regulatory authorities.  

    I get all of these inspections because I let the authorities know what I'm doing. My competitors don't have the permits because they don't bother telling the local authorities about their activities.  When I complain nothing gets done.  I wish some agency would help level the playing field.   I don't mind the fees but I do mind when I'm the one who's having to pay them and others don't.  There are a lot of companies that hire people under the table, hire illegals, don't have proper permits, and cut a lot of corners .... which makes it hard to compete.  

    jeff scott
    jeff scott subscriber

    @Jeffrey Harding

    Same stuff happens in construction (i.e. unlicensed tradesman do not have to follow state regulations)

       I find it ironic to see such an article on the most liberal-biased news organization in this state. 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    They are all tech companies so they represent but a facet of the regions business climate

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Must have been a great meeting.  Wish I’d attended.  The thing that struck me most was the remark by Reid Carr that the city needs to do more to attract LARGE businesses.

    I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that, despite being one of the largest cities in the U.S. we have so few large companies.  E.g., look at Seattle, less than half our size with numerous numerous mega-companies headquartered there. It seems to me that this condition goes a long way toward explaining the outsized clout the hotel/tourism industry has here.

    Phillip Franklin
    Phillip Franklin subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw Bill, large businesses as a general rule don't just pack up and move their headquarters to some city because someone invites them.  Some politicians believe that by giving these large companies favors funded by the taxpayers they can induce them to move to their locality.  In order for you to understand how business works and becomes large I will give you the analogy of the acorn and the large oak tree.  You see most companies start out small like an acorn and grow like a tree.  They basically stay where they are planted.  What makes them grow large is a numerous list of things.  But looking at this phenomena from economics it has to do with the culture and the economic conditions in which these small business (acorns) were planted.  Unfortunately for San Diego it never had nor sought the fertile economic conditions necessary to grow the type of businesses which you see in so many other cities which host the Fortune 100 type of companies.  San Diego's culture was quite the opposite.  This has been first and foremost a military town funded by the defense department for jobs and the economic growth generated by these directions.  The only thing that has stayed dominant here is the U.S. Navy.  Our once bustling aviation industries are all but gone due to politics and big business mergers in the ever growing military industrial complex.  

    We have had some growth in the bio science industries.  This can all be traced to early  U.C. San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.   Eventually UCSD built up a reputation to attract top scientists and research money.  Again this was based upon money from the U.S. government.  There was indeed some spill over.  We also have a fairly strong tourist and recreational industry.  But it pays the lowest of the low wages with no real economic growth designed to create wealth that would spur other strong economic activity.  In fact many believe it drags the economy because the poverty based wages which lowers the tax base and creates a need for welfare programs to the many working poor.

    As the saying goes you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear. What can San Diego do to plant those special acorns that will grow into huge oaks? It needs to change its culture and vision. It needs to see beyond the Navy and tourism.  It needs to build up its educational programs from pre-kindergarten to the graduate levels and inspire creativity that is not dependent upon low wages that attract greedy entrepreneurs and nothing else.  It is a most difficult and challenging task because it is really swimming against the current tide.  Think about planting those special acorns and not expecting to move a giant oak tree over night.

    jeff scott
    jeff scott subscriber

    @Phillip Franklin @Bill Bradshaw

    And where does the Bucknife company, who left a while ago, fit into your explanation above? 

    Many companies have left San Diego, and this state,  despite not being a "huge tree".  This state, and San Diego can careless about capitalism. That is the problem here.

    The state caters only to those who have a 9-5 job, a Union member, rides the trolley and visits Starbucks regularly......

    Phillip Franklin
    Phillip Franklin subscriber

    @jeff scott @Phillip Franklin @Bill Bradshaw Jeff are you joking?  Buck Knives?  My particular comment was in context to Bill Bradshaw's comment about why so few large corporations are based in San Diego.  If Buck Knives was the best that San Diego could have come up with in over 100 years then things are much worse here than I even explained.  Just so you know maybe back more than 100 years ago when Buck Knives was an acorn it had  great potential.  But so were companies that made buggy whips.  So unfortunately for Buck Knives it wasn't destined for the Fortune 100 or even Fortune 500.  But it seems a fairly competent small family run business to this day and probably offers a good fit in a small backwater town in Idaho.  Not every one can play in the big league.   They obviously chose to be a big fish in a very small pond as opposed to a player in the major league.  Good for them.  Some companies grow into the mighty oak and some companies just exist for many generations as a little bush growing in someone's back yard.