Sharky Laguana, a musician who founded Bandago, an outfit that rents vans to bands, is president of the San Francisco Small Business Commission. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

From street performer and ‘drifter’ to small business champion

Sharky Laguana has become an unlikely voice for small business and the public face of Prop. H

Sharky Laguana arrived in San Francisco as a 19-year-old, self-proclaimed drifter by way of Florida, Texas, a Hindu monastery and a host of other stops.

Raised by foster parents in the Midwest, Laguana arrived in The City in 1991, well before the arrival of the social networks and information portals now standard for any nomad trying to pave his way.

With no friends, no family and nothing but a high school degree and a dream of making it as a musician, Laguana set out on the long journey of finding his place in San Francisco.

His earliest memories of the foggy city he now calls home consist of cheap pizza and wine from the Go-Getters Market on Gough Street, nights spent asleep under park benches or in band rehearsal spaces, 50-cent steamed rice from a nearby Chinese restaurant and days passed on the corner playing guitar for loose change.

“I had it in my mind I was going to bust it to success somehow, but I quickly discovered there is absolutely no market for playing acoustic guitar on the streets,” Laguana said.

But with hard work, a few charmed coincidences and one unlucky van breakdown outside of Elko, Nev. while on tour with a band, the aspiring musician found himself another calling: as a small business owner, and eventually, a mayoral appointee to the San Francisco Small Business Commission. He is now an unlikely advocate for policy such as Proposition H that he argued would help his community of fellow merchants.

Laguana’s appointment by Mayor London Breed to the Small Business Commission in 2019 was unexpected, but it was the first time he truly realized the slew of difficulties local merchants face when trying to survive — and ideally thrive — in San Francisco.

“It’s so complicated. It feels so high stakes and takes so much time, but time is the one thing we don’t have,” he said. “Things are great when you’re on step 20, but getting from step 0 to step 1 is too hard.”

Small Business Commission

Laguana believes that it’s far too hard for an average person to start a business in San Francisco, an experience he’s had first hand in getting his own company, Bandago, which rents kitted out vans to bands going on tour, off the ground.

The complicated permitting processes with unclear timelines, prohibitive fixed costs and convoluted documentation that are required to become a legitimate business make it all but impossible for anyone who doesn’t already have coffers full of cash or access to financial wealth to bring something as simple as a two-person pizza shop to a neighborhood, he says.

The result, according to Laguana, isn’t just that those aspiring store owners don’t get to live out their dream, but that the entire community loses out, too.

“If I had something to contribute, which it appears in hindsight I did, then they must have something to contribute,” he said. “What are we missing out on, what are we losing by not making that opportunity available to them? That’s where the loss is, not even to them, but to all of us.”

San Francisco needs to “level the playing field,” he says, which is why he’s become a staunch canvasser for Prop. H, a measure on the ballot in November that would streamline The City’s existing permitting process for new businesses or for existing establishments seeking to make changes by making it faster and more flexible.

“I try to live my life in a coherent fashion where what I’m working on is connected to who I am and what I’ve done and is accomplishing some larger goal,” he said of the decision to back Prop H.

Though Laguana recognizes that San Francisco juggles many different needs in any one neighborhood, he say city policies sometimes far overestimate the resources available to small companies that can’t hire their own accountants or pay for technical experts.

An average day for Laguana before the pandemic was spent deep in the weeds on his own company, Bandago, which had grown to roughly 100 employees during its busy seasons with locations in 15 cities across the United States. He would handle strategic, staffing and technical needs alike, including resolving software glitches since he had taught himself how to code.

“One of the goals of a business is to get it to a place where it can run itself,” he said. “I was never very good at that.”

Within two weeks of the shelter-in-place order, Laguana said his whole business had been turned “upside down” and shortly therafter he had to lay off dozens of employees, a result that’s “hard to unwind” and scary for himself and his workers alike.

Now, in his role as president of the commission, business owner and Prop. H advocate, he’s working triple-time advocating for the interests and futures of local merchants within The City’s political circles, a role he never thought he’d play.

Culture of consensus

Prop. H would amend the Planning Code as well as the Business and Tax Regulations Code to require a 30-day review and inspection process for business uses already allowed in certain districts; allow for pop-up operations in vacant storefronts; certify food and drink establishments to offer co-working spaces during business hours; make it easier to use outdoor seating or parklets; and allow art, philanthropic or social service providers to operate within these commercial districts more readily.

“It was already clear leading up to the pandemic that small business was in crisis. I was talking to people every day that were hanging on at the edge of a rope and, frankly, I was too,” Laguana said of why he believes the measure would help businesses. “I couldn’t help but see myself in their shoes.”

Support for small business is even more crucial now that over 300 restaurants and hundreds more storefronts have shuttered as a result of the pandemic, according to various measurements.

Prop. H would challenge the way things are done in San Francisco, by taking some power from the “culture of consensus” that’s long dictated planning and development within neighborhoods and replace it with more flexibility and experimentation.

Critics of Prop. H have said the measure limits the power of neighbors to have a say in what enters their backyards, excludes them from the planning process and could even increase gentrification and benefit greedy landlords.

The San Francisco Green Party, which endorsed a “no” vote, called it a “vehicle for railroading a bunch of unvetted permanent changes,” using the pandemic as an excuse.

“On some level, we’re going to have to let go of the need to control everything happening around us. We need to back off a little bit and give folks the ability to try things,” Laguana said. “I think there’s a time and a place for planning, but I think the pendulum has swung a little too far towards a direction that makes it hard for people to get up and going.”

But it would also play a key part in facilitating the recovery of robust and vibrant local commercial corridors by filling vacant storefronts, encouraging foot traffic and empowering a diverse set of merchants eager to serve their communities, he said.

It could also bring back the kind of non-tech jobs that are increasingly hard to find in San Francisco.

“We’re losing all our workers, we’re losing our employees, we’re losing all that infrastructure. People assume that if we lose our businesses, they’ll just bounce back overnight, and it’s not like that,” he said.

Critics and even supporters of the measure have suggested a solution would be better suited for legislation crafted by the Board of Supervisors. Laguana doesn’t disagree, but he says he hears from current and soon-to-be business owners daily that they need help now.

“Legislation takes time. We don’t have time anymore. We’re in trouble now. This is a crisis now, and we’ve got to start rebuilding immediately,” he said.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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