South Buffalo native Christopher M. Smith left his hometown in 1995, when he joined the Air Force, and he continued to move around the country after taking jobs with Lockheed Martin and Sun Microsystems.
Smith was working in Chicago in 2005 when his bosses at Sun saw his Buffalo-themed office and asked if Smith would take a job with the company here. “They bribed me to come home. I wasn’t interested at all,” said Smith, now 38 and a senior system engineer for Oracle.
Soon after returning to this area, Smith helped start the Western New York Media Network and launched his popular BuffaloGeek blog. He dropped the “Geek” moniker when he moved his constructively critical online commentaries to Artvoice 18 months ago.
The Orchard Park resident, a minority partner in the Community Beer Works “nanobrewery” on Lafayette Avenue, sparked an international movement last year when he came up with the idea for cash mobs.
The monthly events are organized on Twitter and Facebook and instruct people to spend money at the same small business at the same time. Smith said he’s gotten calls and messages from all over the world as cash mobs spread to new communities and as the idea receives extensive news coverage.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for cash mobs?
A: I had just finished reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about how businesses were trying to use these social couponing services as a means to generate business and find new customers. But unless they’re executed really well and planned really well, they can have a negative impact on the bottom line. ... I thought there had to be a better way to do that. So I’d kind of thought about flash mobs. People show up en masse to a local business. They’d sing songs, do silly improvs, and I thought, well, we could do something like that but make it useful. And I came up with the idea of cash mob, and then I asked people on Twitter what they thought of it, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Which is rare for something that I put on Twitter.
Q: When did you first organize the cash mob idea?
A: It was about early August of 2011, and then we did it two weeks later. I asked people about it, I asked them to nominate a business. And overwhelmingly people nominated City Wine Merchant on Main Street.
Q: How do cash mobs work?
A: We announce on Twitter, usually the week out, where we’re going to go, put it on Facebook, set up an event, and tell people where we’re going to go. And we ask them to show up at a particular time and spend between $10 and $20. Linger in the store for a few minutes. Don’t just rush in and buy something and leave. Take a few minutes to meet people.
Q: The cash mob project is really rooted in your passion for small businesses, right?
A: I think there’s something really special about the American ideal of entrepreneurship. It’s a courageous thing to give up a career to open a business. … If we’re going to have a community that reflects our voices and our choices, that reflects our ideals, we have to invest in small business. They’re making an investment in our community.
Q: What effect have the cash mobs had on the businesses you’ve visited so far?
A: Well you know I just got a letter from Santiago [Masferrer, director of El Buen Amigo] on the last one. We did $1,500 in two hours there. Which, for him, is a big day. It’s his second biggest day ever. We probably had 100 people in there over the course of two hours. If you can give a guy just a little jolt of cash, some renewed vigor, introduce him to some new customers. He was so excited, because, you know, he wrote me a letter afterwards. He was thinking about 60 to 80 percent of the people who were there had never been there before.
Q: Are you surprised at how far cash mobs have spread?
A: Yes, yes I am. … I actually sat down and went on Facebook and searched out cash mob organizations. There’s almost 1,000 of them.
Q: There were people you know, lawyers, who suggested copyrighting this idea, protecting the intellectual property. You decided not to do that.
A: It works because it’s an altruistic idea. Everybody who’s involved knows I’m not benefiting from it. It’s all about the local business and making your community a better place.
Q: Was Buffalo the right place to start this?
A: I think it was the only place to start it. I’ve lived in a lot of places, and the thing that was always missing was that connective tissue of a community, the things that made it a neighborhood, the things that made it a place. And there’s an infectious spirit in Buffalo that you don’t find in a lot of other places.
Q: Where does the cash mob concept go next?
A: There’s a thing called a carrot mob. The carrot mob is, they’ll go to a business and say, we’ll hold a cash mob here only if you use the money that we bring in to buy something green for your building. … So they use the power of the cash mob to influence change. There’s another one called hope mob. It’s kind of like Make a Wish for adults. It’s a Kickstarter Make a Wish. People have medical problems, or disasters. So people have taken the concept and done it a few different ways.
I think locally, the next thing I want to do is a beer mob. I think that neighborhood taverns are an important third place in culture. In the past it’s where people met to discuss neighborhood issues, politics, community affairs, and just have that convivial spirit of a neighborhood. I think that’s a dying ethos. I think what I’d like to try to do is bring 50 to 60 people into one of those neighborhood taverns for a night. Give a guy a good night. Everyone has a few drinks. Everybody has some fun.