Tom McMahon Credit: Kaarin Vembar

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Keeping an independent business going is a challenge in the current market. Indie in D.C. is a new monthly feature on exceptional makers and retailers throughout the District. First up is Tom McMahon, who has owned and operated Urban Dwell in Adams Morgan since 2015.

 Q: You’re an Air Force veteran. How did you get from the military to retail? 

I had top secret clearance, so it would have been easy to jump right into another government job. But I wanted a means to an end. I got married and had kids late, so I wanted to be able to spend time with them. We were looking at things where I could maximize my time with my kids and still do something to make money. My wife’s two sisters have retail stores, so it’s family mentorship. Having the leverage of gaining experience from people who have done it for 12 to 15 years, that was the smart move. 

Kaarin Vembar

Q: Why did you open a store in D.C.? 

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My last assignment was in D.C., so I retired from the Air Force in D.C. My wife has a full-time defense contractor job at the Pentagon. She’s also an intelligence officer. It was my third assignment in D.C., so I had a lot of legacy friends here. I was comfortable with D.C., I liked D.C., and all of my family is on the East Coast. So we decided let’s stay in D.C. 

Q: What surprised you most about retail? 

In a positive sense, I was surprised about how much of the skill set that I’ve acquired over my time in the Air Force was transferable to other things. Between people management, store management, money management, multi-tasking, damage control, project management—things like that were very transferable. 

The most daunting part was the cash register! I was so worried about the cash register. I worked for my uncle growing up as a painter, but I never did any food service so I never worked the cash register before. So, my biggest stress was working the cash register. And then the jewelry. My time in Afghanistan was less intimidating than my first jewelry show. 

Q: Urban Dwell won the 2017 Outstanding Veteran-Owned Small Business Award from SCORE, an organization that pairs budding business owners with a local mentor. What did winning mean to you? 

There were 11 winners around the country in different categories. They had a category for outstanding veteran-owned small business. We won that award. They base the award on level of success combined with the utility of SCORE—how you use the resources of the organization. It was a big honor. After 22 years in the Air Force the military is and always will be a part of me. So, to win an award post-retirement that had something to do with the military was a really big honor. To get something like that within two years of being open is rewarding. We created something from scratch and being recognized feels good.