A culture of yes is the secret to having a successful Malibu business 

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Malibu Country Mart. Photo by Samantha Bravo/TMT

Entrepreneurs and local experts reveal the unique challenges and opportunities of operating a business in Malibu

By Barbara Burke 

Special to The Malibu Times 

In Malibu, a community replete with thought leaders, creatives, and entrepreneurs; new businesses are always opening. Some thrive and grow, while others operate fleetingly, only to be shuttered, leaving residents wondering why they closed so soon.

“I understand retail,” said Steve Soboroff, co-owner of The Park at Cross Creek. Boy, does he! Soboroff owned Malibu Village decades ago, served as the chairman and CEO of Playa Vista, and was instrumental in developing numerous Los Angeles development projects. 

“Businesses in Malibu must overcome higher hurdles, not just regarding permitting and other pre-opening requirements.” he said. “No business wants to just survive — just surviving and doing well are very different things. To thrive in Malibu, a business must have a culture of yes, meaning that they must go beyond and do things like offering to deliver merchandise, meeting the customers’ needs and exceeding their expectations and always keeping their word.”

Soboroff added. “You know the old retail story about Nordstrom’s and its customer service? A guy goes into Nordstrom’s and wants to return a tire. Not batting an eye, they take the tire and give him a refund. The moral of the story is that Nordstrom’s doesn’t sell tires, but they accommodated the customer.”

Overall, Soboroff said, businesses must understand Malibu’s unique demographics.

“Malibu is not just a series of nine billionaires,” he said, noting that people of all walks of life live locally and, of course, there are millions of visitors annually. 

Starting a business in Malibu is not for the faint of heart. The process of obtaining all necessary permits is notoriously arduous.

“If a person needs to remodel before opening a Malibu business, he needs to plan ahead, talk with his landlord and use a knowledgeable team,” said Mikke Pierson, a local business consultant (and former Malibu City Councilmember). “Inevitably, it always costs more and takes longer for permitting in Malibu.”

Noting that “not every business will make it in Malibu,” Pierson discussed what distinguishes highly local successful businesses.  

“I work primarily with small businesses in Malibu and they have to know their value and why they matter in this town,” Pierson said. “You must know who your customer is, how to reach them, take care of them and continue a dialogue with them.”

He discussed some examples of great businesses in Malibu.

“Consider Taverna Tony’s back in the day,” he said. “Tony was there — regular customers knew Tony and he always conversed with them. Another example is the Trancas Canyon Nursery. When a customer goes in there, he’s treated like he’s family.”

For Helene Henderson, the support of Malibuites was critical to the success of her farm-to-table vegetarian eatery concept that began as a dinner series in her Malibu backyard, blossomed into two restaurants on the Malibu Pier and now has locations in Newport Beach, Tiburon, Manhattan, and Japan, with a forthcoming location in Seaport Village in San Diego.

“Having locals supporting me was everything!” Henderson said. “Half of Malibu had been to dinner in my backyard! When I opened in 2013, there was absolutely no foot traffic on the pier, only fishermen and homeless people. Without the support of the local community I do not believe we would be here today! Thank you Malibu!”