Kelly Rosenblatt Kelly Rosenblatt
Senior Manager, Small Business Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


October 10, 2019


Tom McMahon, Owner: Urban Dwell

To better highlight the impressive members of the small business community, we sat down with the 2019 Dream Big Award finalists to learn more about their startup stories, the challenges they have faced, and what the future of business looks like to them. We chatted with Tom McMahon, owner of Washington, D.C.-based Urban Dwell, a boutique with everything from homewares and gifts to women's and men's accessories. Here is what he had to say (what follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity):

Q: What inspired the creation of your business? What problem does it help to solve?

There are many facets to the inspiration. The primary decision was based on motivation to have an end-state where I could be in a position to spend a lot of time with my kids. I look at the histories of many successful people, and one of the predominant regrets was not spending enough time with family. I vowed that this would never be a regret for me. A retail store, where I could one day hire a full-time manager and spend less time in the store and more time managing, buying and providing oversight, while allowing for a very flexible schedule to see the kids more, was where I wanted to be. Continuing with government work would not afford me that flexibility. The type of boutique style gift store, offering hand-curated merchandise in areas of home decor, baby, kitchen, men’s and women’s accessories, and jewelry was inspired by family – two sisters-in-law, one in Philadelphia and one in New Paltz, New York, who both have successful retail stores. When in the post-retirement decision making process, I spent time working with each of them in their stores and following them around trade shows. The whole experience was thrilling so I decided to make the move and dive into retail. In terms of physical aesthetics, I wanted to create a warm, inviting experience. Through my travels while on active duty, I had mentally gathered plenty of images of things I liked. I was able to combine them to create the urban chic atmosphere that Urban Dwell delivers.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you faced while building your company and how did you overcome it?

Deciding to open a boutique, trendy gift store was easy. Navigating the start-up process in Washington, D.C. was another story. After deciding to go ahead with the plan to open a shop in Washington, I quickly realized that I lacked the experience necessary to navigate through the start-up process of opening a business. I remembered the organization called SCORE from several military-hosted events through the years while I was on active duty and thought that SCORE would be the perfect avenue to get help. I didn’t even know what information I lacked until my SCORE mentor guided me through the process. Through several initial meetings, we developed a list of critical areas where I needed the most help:

  • Finding a location utilizing a leasing agent
  • Creating a reasonable Letter of Intent
  • Negotiating the lease
  • Ensuring landlord responsibilities were fair and adequate

Q: What does American entrepreneurship mean to you?

It means that the sky is the limit. Being an entrepreneur in American is a true gift. The amount of resources, freedom to do what we choose, and laws to allow it, cannot be underappreciated. We are fortunate to live in a country where any idea can be born into a flourishing business.

Q: What impact do you hope your business has on society as it grows?

I hope that my business inspires people to go for it in business. I want people to realize that the internet and big box stores will not prevent them from being successful. Independent shops can thrive and be accepted into their neighborhoods, and if creative, can compete in the digitized world.

Q: In your experience, what do you think the future of business looks like for the next generation?

Encouraging! I’ve been surprised at how many people want to, and do, shop and support local small businesses. I think this is a trend that will continue and should inspire others to take a chance on business.

To learn more about the 2019 Dream Big Award finalists, click here.

About the authors

Kelly Rosenblatt

Kelly Rosenblatt

Kelly Rosenblatt is the Social Media and Digital Operations Project Manager at the U.S. Chamber.

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