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The Realities of San Diego Business, Straight from the Business Owners

A trio of business owners took the mic Tuesday to share their stories – from airport woes to life as an entrepreneur in San Diego.

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.

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.

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