Ed. note: Businesses are finding that catering to customers or employees arriving by bicycle makes good business sense. This is the latest in our series of business profiles. Read the full series here.
For emerging technology businesses in the Philadelphia area, the question invariably arises of where to locate a brick and mortar office. In the beginning, small startups may choose the “mobile office” route – which is to say, coffee shops, delis, or co-working spaces located near their personal homes. But as the company grows in size and scope, a choice must be made on where to establish a home base – out in the suburbs, on the outskirts of the city, or smack in the middle?
[su_pullquote align=”right”]The type of people we wanted to work with were bikers, walkers, public transportation people – we wanted to be that kind of company.[/su_pullquote]
Start With What You Like
That was the question confronting Matthew Ray and Evan Urbania soon after the 2009 launch of their online strategy and social media marketing company ChatterBlast Media. Ray and Urbania had been working out of coffee shops around the city, but ChatterBlast’s growth necessitated a stable environment in which to expand and attract both clients and talent. They were initially given offices at Temple University, of which Ray is an alumnus, but this proved to be less than convenient for both company and clients. “Not a lot of businesses wanted to come visit us [at our Temple offices], and it’s hard to say, ‘I want to get out of my office tower and go here or go there or go here’, so we found ourselves driving a lot,” explains Ray.
Thus Ray and Urbania began looking for a true office to locate their growing business, and settled on space smack dab in Center City Philadelphia at 13th and Sansom. Growing up in Lancaster PA, Ray was familiar with the driving that office park workplaces required from their tenants. The office they rented was bigger and more expensive, but “‘we loved the idea of being in the city,” Ray explains. “Number one because we’re Philadelphians. So we wanted to be in Philadelphia. Number two, I’m one of the worst drivers on the face of the planet and in an inner city environment I don’t have a car, I don’t want a car, there was no reason to have a car. Number three, the type of people that we wanted to work with internally were bikers – you know, we have walkers, we have public transportation people – we wanted to be that kind of company.”
They have become that kind of company. The only staff member who uses a car to commute drives to a train station to get into the city. The majority either bike or walk to work on a daily basis. Chatterblast’s bike-friendly location attracted Lou Perseghin, who joined the company in 2012 as Client Services Manager. Already a daily Philadelphia bicyclist, Perseghin says the ability to bike to work contributed to his interest in the new role. “The fact that you can bike here and it is really convenient to everything is fairly important to me and I think to a lot of folks here.”
Building a Company Culture Around No-Stress Commuting
Chatterblast’s staff enjoy short bicycle commutes,[1. The average commute time in Center City is 25.1 minutes according to this neat interactive map derived from U.S. Census Bureau data.] which allows them to cross commuting off the list of possible daily stressors. “There’s some days that I get up and I’m like, ‘Oh no, I’ve only got 10 minutes, I’m not going to make it,'” says Ray. “But it’s still the fastest way I get to work. I won’t make it by public transportation in 10 minutes and I won’t make it by cab in 10 minutes. There’s [a] good feeling from getting to work much faster. With my tires inflated perfectly and no one on 13th Street, and the right EDM (that’s Electronic Dance Music for the uninitiated), I can do 9 minutes.”[2. Ed. note: Philadelphia law prohibits wearing headphones while bicycling and we do not endorse it, even with the bass all turnt up.]
Perseghin echoes this sentiment. “[Biking to work] allows me to take commuting off the table as a thing to concern myself with. What I see is that the folks that bike here have a very seamless transition from being at work to being elsewhere, and it’s very rarely a consideration because it’s very rarely an imposition to commute. I’m not worried about traffic – I’m worried about ‘If I hit all the lights it’ll take me 12 minutes total, if I hit none of the lights it’ll take me 6.’ That’s what I’m worried about, which in the grand scheme of things is not a worry.”
[su_quote]”It’s very positive for me to bike into the city. You experience the city more. I love SEPTA, but walking down, getting on [a train], you’re kind of confined on a subway system. We’re here in Midtown Village, and so biking into this feels almost like a Dutch-style commute because I go from no-man’s land down in South Philly and then I get over Washington and it starts to become more bike friendly, and then I get a bike lane, and then I’m in the village and shopkeepers are coming and opening stuff and there’s other bikers. I like that.”[/su_quote]
Says Perseghin of his bicycle commute: “If I bike in, by the time I get here … I’m fairly awake. It’s a good little jolt to start your day; you say good morning to the same people. I yell at the same people on Washington Avenue every morning.”
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”I would like to see the city and small businesses like ourselves continue to foster a biking community, because it’s better for everybody in the long run.”[/su_pullquote]
The bike culture at ChatterBlast also paved the way for the company’s participation in the annual MS: City to Shore ride held by the National MS Society. Ray first did the ride in 2011 with a friend’s team. Urbania and Perseghin joined him the year after and together the three raised $16,000. During this ride, they noticed that the larger 60-70 person teams were raising quite a bit more than them, and this provided all the incentive needed to create an official ChatterBlast company team. “We were like, ‘We could do this!'” says Ray. “We kind of built it [around] our health and wellness program here, which is all very ad-hoc because we are a little company. So in between last year’s ride and this year’s ride … the three of us decided that we were going to make the MS ride for the next three years a team ChatterBlast thing, so we introduced it to the staff.”
As you would expect, the culture creates converts. “I know two folks just went out last week to Philly Bikesmith [the shop that’s sponsoring the ChatterBlast team] and another one of our [team members] just recently bought a bike and has started biking in on nice days to work,” reports Perseghin. When one employee bought a bike but not a helmet, bicycling facilitated bicycling. “Kurt bought a bike the other day and didn’t have a helmet yet … I had an extra one, and in 12 minutes I rode home, got a helmet and rode back.”
“It’s About Letting a Different Culture In”
When asked for their opinion of other bicycle-oriented Philadelphia businesses, Ray admires businesses that have installed bike corrals.
[su_quote]”I’m a big fan of what Shake Shack has done, what Drinker’s Pub on Chestnut Street has done – and so I don’t understand why [these bike corrals] are not on every other corner. I would like to see the city and small businesses like ourselves continue to foster a biking community, because it’s better for everybody in the long run. This is a colonial city … There are streets in this town that cars literally should not be driving down anymore…No one’s trying to get rid of a car culture, I just think everybody’s trying to let a different culture in.”[/su_quote]
Ray sees promoting bicycling as a way Philadelphia can ameliorate certain unfixable situations. “I don’t think any city says, ‘We want to build more parking garages and highways – let’s blow up some nice buildings and build an on ramp and a parking garage.’ No city wants to do that. And I think promoting bike culture and biking in urban areas prevents that from happening. More people biking from location to location is less people who are going to be on the Schuylkill [Expressway] in some way, shape or form. And we’re never going to be able to fix the Schuylkill.”
Ray sees the value that this newfound bike culture has brought to his business, and he has no plans to put on the brakes. “We’ve kind of stumbled and biked into a new cultural thing for us and it’s become very important. If my staff is making investment in bikes for the City to Shore ride, then they’re making an investment in bikes for the next 3 months, which hopefully means they’re going to be invested in it beyond that, which is great.”
Incidental or planned, bicycle-friendliness remains central to Chatterblast’s strategic planning. “Our lease is up here,” says Ray, “so we’re playing the lease renewal game and looking at properties, and it has been important that properties we look at maintain a Center City edge.” And what question are they putting to their prospective new landlords? “This is a biking culture now, we do bike, and so – where do we put our bikes?”
[su_spoiler title=”Learn more about ChatterBlast Media!” style=”fancy”]Check out the ChatterBlast website for more information.