This is the most asked question I get when it comes to Philadelphia Zoning: “But HOOOW did you get into zoning?” With a *heavy* infection when zoning rolls out of their mouth.
To which my response is always, well that’s a L O A D E D question.
But let’s get into it: How I got into zoning is a classic case of an entrepreneur being in the right place at the right time; with the right set of eyes and awareness for an opportunity.
The backstory: I started working for a zoning attorney in the summer of 2016.
What TF is Zoning and Permitting?
Actually, let me explain what zoning + permitting even is first:
Zoning is regulations governing land use: How we use property, buildings, and spaces. Generally, there are residential areas comprised of single-family or multifamily zoning classifications. There are commercial districts, industrial districts, and mixed-use districts. Mixed-use is buildings with commercial uses/business on the bottom and residential living units on top.
As you can imagine, the processes involved in the zoning and permitting process to build things are arduous and dynamic.
There’s an even crazier process when you want to create or build something that is outside the zoning code boundaries. The process includes many parties: an attorney, design professionals, multiple city departments, and expeditor, and more.
How I got Involved in Zoning
Now that you got the lowdown on zoning, here’s the 30,000-foot version of how I got involved:
As I was working in a zoning practice, I very *quickly* realized the many issues in the industry regarding how services were and were not being brought to market.
There were many gaps in the market: A lot of miscommunication and projects falling apart because of a lack of organization.
Plus, mostly everybody hired an attorney for the whole project when an attorney is only needed for about 25% of the process. Attorneys have the market ‘cornered’ and people pay for that.
Enter, an entrepreneurs dream moment: ACTUALLY identifying a gap in the market and deciding to fill it. That is exactly what brought me to launching Philadelphia Zoning.
The Problems That Philadelphia Zoning Was Launched to Solve
- Changing How It’s Always Been Done: We made it clear that you do not need to go directly to a lawyer and hire them for the whole process. We were able to provide lower prices but for higher quality, because we didn’t just charge $300/hour because we could like a typical lawyer. Nobody likes receiving a bill for $300/hour for an attorney to be running around and coordinating. So we took the attorney out of the middle and replaced them with a project manager.
- The lack of management: As I mentioned above, there are many moving parts involved in going through the zoning + permitting process. Usually, the owner is responsible for hiring multiple third parties, but they typically do not have the bandwidth to manage everyone. Thus, the project loses steam and becomes disorganized. To solve this: Philadelphia Zoning recruits and manages all of the third parties for the owner. We developed outside counsel contracts that allow us to hire + pay the attorney on our clients’ behalf (saving the owner even more time). We bring in the design professional and manage their needs. We became the adored middle man that shoulders a lot of the hiring, coordinating and resource- obtaining work needed to successfully see a project through to completion in an efficient way within an appropriate amount of time.
No other companies were doing it this way when we started.
And if they were, you couldn’t find any of them online because no branding or marketing existed.
Our main ‘competition’ was attorneys and design professionals. But the funny thing is: Attorneys and design professionals actually enjoy working with us because we handle much of the work that eats their time up and takes them away from higher-level and higher-paying tasks within their firms.
Philadelphia Zoning created a win-win-win situation in many ways because we were able to integrate with our perceived ‘competition’ and allow them to improve ROI on their time.
Create a BRAND, Not a Business to Attract High-Ticket Clients
After launching Philadelphia Zoning at the beginning of 2017, my strategy was different than what existed in the market to date: I led with branding and value.
I built a brand by ensuring the essence of our existence was communicated in our visual appearance and marketing messages.
We added a LOT of value by putting out free content and step-by-step guides to help people looking for information and education in the elusive world of zoning and permitting. We wrote at least one blog per week for the first year.
This quickly got us to the top of Google in competition with law firms that were around for many, many years.
Philadelphia Zoning created online competition. People that had been in the market for a while, especially law firms, took notice and overhauled their websites. One even wanted to sue us because they were pissed. (All signs that you are doing something right; pissing other organizations off and lighting a fire under their asses. This is a good thing because it causes existing people in the market to raise their standards.)
All this allowed me to create a brand that has ATTRACTED clients such as Forever 21, Columbia Sportswear, Ulta Beauty, and H&M with ZERO money invested in marketing. They FOUND Philadelphia Zoning- we didn’t go looking for them.
(More on that in another post.)
Over the past two years, two people that worked for Philadelphia Zoning left and created their own business utilizing the Philadelphia Zoning model. Another sign that there is a huge opportunity in the market.
The Difference Between a Brand & a Business
Back to my strategy: I ensured I created a brand and not a business. What is the main difference between a brand and a business you ask?
A business provides a service (which, of course, a brand also does), but a brand leads with the story of why it exists and how it solves problems.
A business leads with: we provide zoning and permit expediting services. A brand leads with: We launched because we see the pain that developers/investors/biz owners endure when they are trying to launch and have to go through the permitting/zoning process. We aim to streamline that process so you can get your investment cash-flowing and your business up-and-running as fast as possible.
See the difference?
I Had NO CLUE What Zoning Was Before I Got Into It
Before I ‘got into zoning’ I had no idea what zoning even was, or that it was even a word in the dictionary.
I did not know that we live in buildings and go to school in properties that are ‘zoned’.
Plus when I got into it, I was disdainful. I am a brand development expert who’s former company was an electronic music event production + marketing company. Was I really about to enter into the political and system-infused world of zoning and permitting?
I mean, my motto for most of my life was ‘fuck the system’, and I was about to enter a world run by politics and systems. Go figure….
That’s how it went, though. That is “opportunity” in a nutshell. And I am glad it all happened. It opened my eyes to the deeper realities of our systems and the good and bad about them. Plus, I got to experience the rewarding aspects of seeing a clear need and being able to fill it quickly!
How You Can Identify a Market Gap or Business Opportunity
This experience cannot be forced, but there are actions you can take to cultivate an awareness for opportunity:
- Be open to new opportunities even if you have never heard of it or if you are highly skeptical. You never know what opportunity exists on the other side of your reluctance
- LISTEN & OBSERVE: What complaints are coming up from the market or customers or clientele? What issues are arising in the way that business is being conducted? Where is there a gap in communication or service? Where is there frustration coming up and who is frustrated and why? What are people requesting that is not easily provided?What are people requesting that is not being provided at all? Where are there areas where communication, management, and coordination are lacking and can be improved?
- Have things been done that way for a long time? If they have, how can you make them better? Are people frustrated with the way things have ‘always been done’?
- BE WILLING: Be willing to acknowledge what you see and then take action to start solving problems. Keep solving more and more problems.
- MOVE FAST, Don’t (over) think: You have to move swiftly when this happens. Trust your gut and keep executing and solving problems. This isn’t the time to over-plan and over-strategize. The strategy is found in the action you must take through creating and serving the market. After about a year when things settle, you can step back and strategize and plan your way to the next level. at a time like this beginning phase, movement, trial, error, and sloppy action are your best friend.
When it comes down to it, people are willing to pay for the following problems to be solved:
- Things that waste their time/aren’t an efficient use of their time
- Loss of efficiency
- Really good services
Philadelphia Zoning’s leading pitch was: We save real estate investors/developers and business owners time, money, and headaches when it comes to zoning + permitting in Philadelphia.
At the end of the day, most problems are things that lose people their precious time, their hard-earned money, and cause stress.
Follow Your Intuition
I truly followed my intuition when this was all happening. It was a natural unfolding that I capitalized on again and again.
I saw problems + I solved them.
I saw opportunities + I took advantage of them.
I saw frustration + I aimed to make people less frustrated.
That is what opportunity is made of!!