The Shoeshine Oracles: Tech-Business Lessons from the Street

8/7/09Follow @gthuang

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done. I’ve told my kids that. ‘People ain’t gonna do business with people they don’t like.’”

For a second opinion, I went to Dave Blanks, who plies his shoeshining trade at the Tully’s flagship store on 4th and Union. Blanks has been shining shoes at Tully’s for about 12 years, and he is an investor in the coffee franchise. Before that, he was at the Four Seasons Olympic hotel (now the Fairmont). If you want to know what to do with all your Amazon stock, come in and talk to Blanks. I get the feeling he has helped make some folks a lot of money—and he hasn’t done too badly himself. Richard Tait, co-founder of the game company Cranium, once said his greatest influences were Blanks and Steve Ballmer. (See this profile in the Seattle Times for more on Blanks.)

The Blanks shoeshining technique is different from the Perkins’—remove the laces, take more time conditioning the leather—and so is his take on the economy. Blanks said his business has dropped off sharply during the recession. “I could see it coming,” he said.

From his corner spot at Tully’s, Blanks reads the mood of passers-by as easily as the stock ticker on the TV overhead. When the percentage of people he saw holding coffees dropped from about 90 percent to less than 10 percent early last fall, he knew times were going to get tough. He says when John, the guy in a wheelchair who usually hangs out on the corner, is gone for a few days, it means investors and bankers aren’t doing so well. (While we talked, John arrived to set up shop on the corner.)

Like any business, Blanks is constantly fending off competitors, and people who want a piece of his customers. As we talked, a man asking for donations for a charity hovered outside the Tully’s door. Blanks said he’s had to ask the man to move away from the building wall, and to stop asking Tully’s customers for donations. (Kind of refreshing to see this jostling at street level, rather than in the Internet cloud. Business is business everywhere.)

His advice to young companies and entrepreneurs? “Get to know who runs downtown, the families,” Blanks said. That would include the Benaroyas, the Stroums, the O’Keefes (Tom O’Keefe owns Tully’s), and a long list of influential Seattleites, many of whom are on a first-name basis with Blanks.

My advice is simpler: get a shoe shine. And get ready to look at the tech economy in a whole new light.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Lew McMurran

    Greg, good to see you offering a perspective from “the street” and glad you spolighted the Perkins’, too.

    First off that’s the best shoeshine deal anywhere. I mean $2.50 for a good shine? I always give them a 5 spot. Morgan is a super nice guy and while I go in there only periodically, his manner and demeanor make me feel he knows me. He offers some good business advice, too.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ghuang/ Gregory T. Huang

    Thanks, Lew — I plan to become a regular customer, though I may need to invest in a new pair of shoes (despite the economy).

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