The Shoeshine Oracles: Tech-Business Lessons from the Street

If you really want to keep your finger on the pulse of the Seattle business scene, go get your shoes shined. That’s the advice Todd Dean gave me recently. Dean is president of Keiretsu Forum Seattle/Northwest, the local chapter of the world’s largest angel investor community. He took me to see a couple of the top shoeshiners in town. Even though I don’t really own shoes worthy of a shine, I hope to become a regular customer and soak up their wisdom. You might call them shoeshiners. I call them oracles.

Morgan Perkins runs the family shoeshine business at Nordstrom downtown. Their clientele includes lawyers, judges, investors, business people, and, that morning, the superintendent of Seattle public schools. Perkins has been a fixture at Nordstrom since 1974. Perkins, who is African-American, came up as a railroad porter from Salt Lake City in an era of Jim Crow laws, and he has seen it all. For the past 35 years, while he and his family have shined customers’ shoes, they’ve told him things—about business, jobs, the economy, whatever’s on their mind. (See this profile in the P-I for more on the Perkins family.)

“People want five minutes of peace, they want to relax,” said Morgan’s wife, Patricia, as she meticulously gave new life to my dress shoes.

I asked how their shoeshine business has been doing during the recession. Sunny, the Perkins’ daughter, was working next to us. She said business has actually improved. Instead of buying new shoes, people are keeping their old shoes longer, she said, and they need to be polished. Especially for all those job-seekers out there. (The familiar refrain of doing more with less, among techies and non-techies alike.) Her customer, sitting next to me, was a former Washington Mutual employee who just got a job running security for the Sound Transit light rail system in Seattle.

Mr. Perkins had some sage advice for entrepreneurs and startups. “What I’ve learned in my life is, people do things for people they like,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling cars, shining shoes, or you’re the head of this company. If your initial meeting with that person is not positive—it only takes the speed of light for me to figure out if I’m going to like you. And that’s the whole idea right there.”

As Perkins explains, it’s all about building a sincere relationship with customers. “When a person comes into contact with you, it is your duty to create a situation where that person’s going to like you. And that’s not really hard. We want to like other people,” he said. “When I stand here at the door, it’s a smile, ‘Hello sir, how are you doing today?’ And I got you. I’ve seen it happen so many times, a person comes with her husband, I’ll catch the eye of the wife, and he’s looking down. Wife will look down at his shoes, they look at each other, and here he comes. See what I’m saying?”

“You develop a relationship that way,” Perkins continued. “You have to always recognize another’s presence on the face of the earth, no matter what your station in life is. That’s what I’ve always 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.

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3 responses to “The Shoeshine Oracles: Tech-Business Lessons from the Street”

  1. Lew McMurran says:

    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.

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