We had the good fortune of connecting with Blair Cohn and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Blair, how do you think about risk?
Since graduating from college, I have both knowingly and unintentionally taken risks while pursuing my work experiences and into a full career. I believe that risk taking is a necessary part of progressing, at least for me it is. I never had the idea of going to work for one company for 35 years and getting that gold watch at retirement. I was always seeking the holy grail somewhere, somehow, but had no idea where to find it. My first job out of college had me managing a music rehearsal studio and production company. I used all my basic principles from business school for two years to get the business organized, streamlined, and functioning to capacity. At that point I applied to graduate school to pursue an MBA. I wasn’t accepted and then decided just to quit the job with no Plan B except to keep pursuing the music business somehow. I managed local bands while landing a daytime job as the business manager for a local newspaper. At night I was out trying to land the big deal while impressing the booking agents and record folks. Realizing that I wasn’t the Hollywood shark type, I moved on from that dream and landed a steady job on the lowest rung for a small event planning company. I applied my marketing school techniques and would push the envelope when organizing the national educational conferences for school teachers. I was also recruiting prominent speakers, cultural entertainment, and other twists to the programming that the company wasn’t used to doing. I would commit to things that hadn’t been tried before (broke from their formula) but knew that the features would be a draw to the programs we produced. It paid off as the conferences were highly successful and the company grew its relationships with prominent educators across the country. After six years I rose to the top salary and top responsibility. It was just then that a buddy said he had a new opportunity to share with me and that I should jump ship and come with him to create a running event company from scratch. So, I did. We started the company out of his house with funding from his family. I committed all sweat equity. We knew it would be feast or famine. Mostly famine. For a year I had no car and was eating slices of bread with peanut butter and cups of tea for dinners. We worked the job 24 hours a day, promoting and marketing ourselves, and developing relationships across the city. And over time we grew the Long Beach Marathon from 2,500 to 25,000 participants. We looked to the big events like New York, Boston, and Chicago marathons to emulate and to raise the cache, profile, and reputation of our marathon. My philosophy of “just jump out the window and figure out how to land” came to fruition during this time period. Maybe some of it comes from my punk rock roots but once you learn the system, you can maneuver the risks in and around the system. Sometime after my marathon and endurance events planning when I had moved on again, there was a brief period when I got derailed and found myself back at square one. It was time to reinvent myself one more time. This was a heavy period of angst but it was also a personal renaissance for creativity. I wrote, painted, practiced drawing cartoons, and pursued photography. When I thought I didn’t have any options, another friend threw me a lifeline and I worked with him to create a huge event in our downtown. It was widely praised and certainly different than other event in the city. My efforts got the attention of a local councilwoman who recommended that I apply to manage the business association. Over the last twelve years as the Executive Director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association, I have used risk as the fuel for invigorating a sleepy district and neighborhood that had its heyday decades ago. I told the board of directors that we were not going to do anything like “that always did” and just hold on for the ride. I took all the old files and trashed them. It was time for a new era. I began starting new weekly/monthly programs and events like a walking club, book club, supper club, drinking club, kids bike ride, music club, flash events, expanded the monthly art walk. All of these programs were meant to create new energy and connectivity between the residents and our business members. They were unorthodox to what had happened before but they caught on quickly. All of these now have consistency and longevity twelve years later. Out of the angst of the unknown, and the risks taken, the creativity resulted in a transformed business district with new development and investment. I equate this to the phrase “just bake the bread.” You have to just “do” and create and then people will recognize it and want a piece of it. Also, I believe that you never know if it’s possible until you try and other similar clichés. I suppose I live by that motto of “just do it and beg for forgiveness later.” And I do so knowing the sun will rise again tomorrow and it will be fine. I know that I want to be first in implementing new ideas and concepts to further our mission. And I now have my own type of risk assessment–check the politics, the finances, the “who’s watching” then go for it. Without the willingness to take risks and leap head first into the unknown, you cannot win trust or become a go-to person, be a doer, or earn a reliable reputation. In time you can gain more freedom to create and to simply “do” by taking significant risks.
All right, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
I believe our particular business association may be considered “small but mighty” with 800+ members surrounded by a bedroom community. We have spent more than a decade engaging the neighborhoods to create and build up a truly connected community. The neighborhood pride is so prevalent and so high in Bixby Knolls, probably more so here than other parts of the city. The district 12 years ago was sleepy and dusty, with very little going on with visible vacancies. We persisted with all of our monthly events and programs to create social ways to draw community members directly into the businesses and support them: Bixby Knolls Strollers (walking club), Supper Club, Good Spirits Club, Literary Society, Kidical Mass bike rides, Concerts in the Park(ing Lot), First Fridays, Knights of the Round (Turn)Table, Flash Events, and the Brewery Knolls Trolley Tour. I also believe that there is soul in our district and surrounding neighborhoods–this is definitely the result of the connectivity and consistency of all of our efforts. It was very challenging to try to kickstart an area that had its heyday a few decades back. We also started doing what we do with the crash that came in 2008. But it was persistence and the constant creativity of the office that engaged both the business members and the community members. I realized fairly recently that other than myself, none of the staff that we have hired had a business background. We have always hired artists (creatives) who then were able to learn about what a business district is and does. The use of artists to run a business district bring a whole other perspective in meeting our mission. I think this is a very important part of our story. One of the most important lessons (and truisms) is to be the “Land of Yes” and be willing to try things and explore all ideas. Jump out the window and figure out how to land safely.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
This is a good question. I once created a list of 30 or 40 stops all over the city to explore. Most folks think about the tourist areas but I believe in addition to all that it’s getting into and around the neighborhoods gives the best sense of the city. I have to be careful here and not just say “all of Bixby Knolls is the best place to be for the weekend.” I’ll be fair, although I would suggest a thorough tour for sure or at least a ride on the Beer Trolley one weekend to our breweries and the neighboring ones. As for a full day or two, locations would include: Breakfast at the El Dorado Golf Course Restaurant, a stop at Twice Baked bakery for gluten free treats, a bike ride all around El Dorado Park; walk around Naples canals, strolling 2nd Street, shopping in Retro Row, a Bixby Burrito from Lola’s, donuts from Sweat Retreat Donuts on PCH; dessert from Guanabana on Santa Fe or tacos from Casa Perez also on Santa Fe; French Toast from Gladstone’s (for real) on the waterfront or breakfast at The Plunge on Ocean Boulevard; stop for road candy from the Candy Warehouse; Drinks at The Interlude or Poor Richard’s for the characters; lunch or dinner views from Boathouse on the Bay or The Maya; southern flavor from Sal’s Gumbo Shack in North Long Beach; Me & Ed’s Pizza is a must for old school vibes and flavor; more drinks and snacks at The Vue Bar; getting inked at Outer Limits Tattoo. Ice cream at Long Beach Creamery or Rori’s are good stops, as is any place with Dole Whip. Dog beaches and dog parks make for fun afternoon past time as would a baseball game at Blair Field (sans pandemic). For people, speaking to any small business owner will give you a glimpse into the American Dream. Breweries, wine bars are a good start, but the barber shops and salons will show you the salt of the earth. The collective people of Long Beach will make any stay memorable.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Big shout out to my wife Alissa Cohn. She is the woman behind the man. Alissa is the idea sounding board, the straight-talker, and doesn’t play to the ego. I get a lot of kudos and praise and often Alissa came up with the idea or triggered some type of creative twist to pursue. We wouldn’t have as many successes if it weren’t for Alissa’s input and contributions. All thanks and praises for her ongoing support. And I have to thank both of my parents who raised the bar high as to never be satisfied with anything less than great. They also instilled the “carpe diem” drive that I have to keep going, and going, and going.