The Secrets of Small Business Success — Making It In San Francisco

Business owners from around San Francisco participated in in a small panel discussion for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business University. We were proud to host the event to discuss a topic any local business owner, new or established can relate to: What does it take to succeed in San Francisco?

Gwen Kaplan, owner of Ace Mailing Services, and Bernie Melvin, owner of Bernie’s Coffee, joined us at our office to talk with Chamber members about their experiences as business owners in San Francisco over the years.


Here are the four tips we learned from their discussion.


Starting her business was a happy accident, says Bernie. Born in San Francisco and a third generation Noe Valley resident, she worked as a trainer for Tully’s Coffee in their Noe Valley Store. “When Tully’s started to close, they gave me the landlord’s phone number and said ‘We’re walking away from the space, you know everyone, the landlord’s been great to us. Maybe you could find someone to take over the location.’ I realized I was unhappy climbing up the corporate ladder, so I started talking to family members about it. Before I knew it, I had family members offering me money saying, ‘Do this.’ I made that decision in two weeks and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

For Gwen, it was a college trip that introduced her to the Bay Area. After graduation, she and her business partner saw a great opportunity to start a business. “We wanted something that wasn’t retail (since we had no retail experience), something that was business to business and something that had growth potential, but not a tremendous start up cost,” due to the challenges in getting business loans as a woman in the late 1970’s. After a couple of years operating out of their garage, the first Ace Mailing Services office opened in Fort Mason Center as a support service for non-profit groups.


Being rooted in their communities has been a huge part of doing business for both women. After moving from Fort Mason Center to the Mission District in 1986, Gwen helped found the Northeast Mission Business Association (NEMBA) to support the many production, distribution, and repair businesses in the area. Membership in the Chamber of Commerce has also been important to Gwen and Ace Mailing, especially in the many ways the Chamber recognizes local businesses. “As a small business, it’s hard to get your name out there. Just having people know who you are and what you do is important and we’re not able to afford the tremendous budgets that some other businesses have.”

For Bernie, relationships came as second nature. When she opened in 2007, Noe Valley was predominantly young, professional, and single – quite different from the neighborhood of families she grew up in. Soon after Bernie’s opened, though, she started to see it shift back. “People getting engaged, starting families… I love watching that whole process. I’m very involved in that – I create my business on knowing everyone. It’s been fun and exciting to watch babies being born and suddenly they’re 7–8 years old and the parents mark that from when my business opened.”

Bernie’s drive to build and maintain relationships is what enabled her to open a second location in the Crocker Galleria in 2013. It was never in her plan to have a second location, but when one of her Noe Valley customers (who happened to work for the company that manages Crocker Galleria) recommended her to fill a vacant spot, she got a blast from the past. Bernie had actually been the opening manager of a Tully’s in that same location in 1997 and the HR director from the Crocker Galleria remembered her from that time. “It wasn’t a plan, but it’s been the most amazing experience and I have no regrets about it whatsoever.”


Adaptation is what’s kept Ace Mailing in business over the years, says Gwen. “We originally started out in an almost simplistic way, but all of the things that have effected change in San Francisco since 1977 have affected our business in the same way. You cannot be afraid to adapt.” From integration of different services to paring down internal processes and structure, adapt, integrate, and change is Gwen’s advice.


Going with your gut is a double edged sword that can lead to mistakes and can help prevent them. One of the first things Bernie learned was to shut out the voice that said, “Everyone else says this is the right thing to do.” Instead she’d take an idea and sit with it for 72 hours to really understand how she felt about it deep down. “I still make mistakes,” she says, but “you learn from those mistakes.”

Thanks again to Gwen Kaplan, Bernie Melvin, and Alex Mitra and Taryn Taddeo from the SF Chamber for the great conversation.

This post is from Townsquared. Please see the full post here