On the Money: Island Entrepreneurs

To survive the chilly economic winds of Martha’s Vineyard, one generally has two choices: Patch together several jobs into a livelihood, or start your own business. The first, called “the Island way,” is hard. The second may be harder, but the Island nurtures a strong spirit of entrepreneurship.

“Martha’s Vineyard is one of the last places where people who have the means – the time, talent, and treasure – can be an entrepreneur and be successful,” says Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, adding that 90 percent of the chamber’s thousand members are small-scale entrepreneurs.

The Island has “embraced the small business community,” says Nancy. Year-round and seasonal residents, as well as visitors, value Island businesses as integral to the Vineyard’s sense of place, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and town zoning boards protect small businesses by keeping out inappropriate development. “Of course it helps that there is no box store, no chain store,” she notes.

Entrepreneurs who thrive even in difficult times, Nancy says, “are amazingly nimble and willing to rethink their business model without compromising integrity.” She describes JB Blau as a “brilliant marketer” who keeps Sharky’s Cantina in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown thriving by effective use of social media and supporting community causes. She also mentions Maggie White, who repositioned the Hob Knob as an “eco-boutique hotel” rather than just another quaint upscale Edgartown inn. Businesses that don’t last tend to lack flexibility in products and pricing, and have owners who “think of their businesses as a cash cow,” Nancy says. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen sorely disappointed by that delusion.”

Successful entrepreneurs also have passion. “They love it every day, even in August after eighty straight fourteen-hour days,” Nancy says. Consumers respond to that love; she calls it being “value-conscious,” sensitive not only to price point, but to “the value of experience....If [customers are] going to spend the rates we charge here, they want to feel the love.”

Q: What is the benefit of spending the time and money on an active website and social media for a Vineyard business, when so much of the economy is visitor-based?

A: “You can make your business a destination, not just a walk-in,” says Dawn Bellante, general manager of MVOL (Martha’s Vineyard Online), an internet directory and website design service for Vineyard businesses. “Some people spend more time online researching their trip than they do on the Island. So by using social media, you’re able to stay in touch and build loyalty. They’re in the store for five minutes, but you’re able to keep in touch throughout the year. A lot of [customers] like to keep in touch, and that’s a function of the people they meet here, the shop owners that provide a boutique experience. People are hungry for that direct contact.”