What does your community’s welcome mat say?


Creative Commons License photo credit: archerwl

A state association of businesses has pushed legislation into our state house that would limit the on-premise retail sales volume of a related group of businesses.

Yes, we talked about this recently, but today let’s go beyond this one business, this one time.

That situation is just a symptom of a far bigger concern.

For an established business with good wholesale distribution in place, retail sales limitations wouldn’t be a big deal – except that those same businesses already have legislated production and sales volumes that limit their growth.

These production/sales limitations brilliantly restrict both growth and new businesses in that market.

One of our town’s newest businesses, started by a young family, is placed in jeopardy by this legislation just weeks before their doors open.

That doesn’t mean the “other guys” don’t have grievances to settle (such as a level compliance playing field), but those grievances aren’t going to be cured by artificially limiting sales numbers.

Even so, it shouldn’t be about one business group over the other – both have the right to do business. I know business owners and employees on both sides. I believe these two groups have much more to gain by cooperating.

While the specifics of issues like this will change from year to year, what concerns me most is the message these situations send.

What’s the message to young families and entrepreneurs?

Last week, we talked last week about what communities do to encourage young families and businesses to put down roots or return to the area. Governments and community economic development groups put a lot of effort into these programs. Meanwhile, legislative proposals that limit the growth of new small businesses fly directly in the face of that work.

My question to those in the State House is this: Does legislation that chooses one market over another send the message you want to send from your state, much less your community?

Do laws like that encourage young families to stay and invest in your community? Does the legislature realize that when a small business person sees this done to one business niche, they can’t help but wonder if it will be done to another niche in the next session?

The message we heard then

When we moved our family and our business here in the late 1990s, one of the reasons we chose Columbia Falls was the warm response we received from folks around town. When we said we were considering moving here, the typical response was something like “That’s great. We’d be happy to have you here.”

While schools, the Park and recreation opportunities were important, the overwhelming “this is the right place” feeling came from the welcoming nature of the people we met.

The message I heard back in the 90s was not “Be a no-holds-barred success at all costs.” It was “Build it here. Be a good corporate citizen, a good employer, a profitable example for others who want to build / relocate a business here, and an asset to your community. Become a member of the family.”

If things didn’t work out or legislation targeted my business, I could always move it out of state because it isn’t tied to a brick and mortar retail location. It’s a by-design luxury and a property of the kind of work we do.

Thing is, brick and mortar retailers, restaurants, microbreweries and most services businesses really don’t have that choice.

What’s the message now?

No matter what the state house is working on, they must be careful about the message being sent by legislation that artificially manipulates markets and favors one group over another. It’s a message that other business owners and entrepreneurs look for when they choose a home. Business is hard enough as it is without having to fight off competition from the state house.

This session’s controversy in your state house, whatever it might be, will likely be old news next session.

The real concern to have is this: What our legislators do sets out your state’s welcome mat.

Do you want it to say “Welcome to our state” or “Build it somewhere else”?

Loose lips raise communities

community obligation

It’s Saturday morning, so the ritual of before-anyone-else-rises reading, writing and coffee is, as no one ever really says to anyone else, “on like Donkey Kong”.

After closing out a couple of chapters and heading to the laptop to write, I happen to see a piece in the news about a local who is heading off to the Montana State timeout facility in Deer Lodge.

I make a comment on Facebook about the story, the essence of which is “Good riddance, don’t come back”, and then move on to writing. So of course the first response to my “don’t come back” comment is politically charged (because that’s the only way some people see the world these days) and a little snarky.

Public comments of a political nature are rare from me because political conversation usually degrades into one of two things: political arguments or political rants. I have absolutely no use for either one because I find them a waste of time.

So why did I say anything about this story? Why this time?

It isn’t just news

Because this isn’t just news, and it’s only political to those who see the world only through their party’s political lens, regardless of their politics.

What struck me about this story is that the criminal in question is a convicted felon on parole who owned a business and is married – yet no one noticed a thing. Yes, despite the comings and going of employees, customers and a spouse, no one saw or did anything and when asked – the convicted criminal’s spouse said “Oh, I just thought those people were coming over to use (the convicted criminal’s) computer.”

Really?

Is that your contribution to the community? I’ll bet you can tell us what happened on the last two episodes of Real Housewives (or similar), but all that stuff in the basement (nothing out of the ordinary, just the guns, drugs and other stuff) somehow escaped your attention.

Again, why did I say anything about this story? Why this time?

Beyond the headline

Let’s go beyond the headline and it’ll become clear.

We have a business owner with employees. Now that the business owner is going to Deer Lodge, the business is likely to go under, because the owner is probably the “technician” (read The E-Myth). But there are other reasons that the business is likely to lose.

The community now knows that the owner is a convicted felon – in this case, a repeat felon with meth and weapons charges. That isn’t likely to attract more business.

What does the community lose if this business fails?

  • Employees lose jobs.
  • Employee families experience decreased financial stability, if not serious trouble. It’s not uncommon for these things to roll downhill to what might be called “social issues” such as domestic violence or changes in the behavior of kids. It just depends.
  • Whatever benefits the community might gain from the tax revenues collected from that business.
  • The rollover of money use from those employees’ pay in their community.
  • Some level of stability of the community, which drops when the stability of the communities’ employee families drops.

Those are just the obvious ones.

Had someone said something sooner, maybe this could have been averted. In the case of a repeat situation like this, maybe not. We’ll never know. The choice made to say or do nothing reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a group about their obligation to sell harder.

Why sell harder?

Selling harder benefits your community in ways that are similar to those mentioned in the above business failure discussion.

I have to repeat this because people tend to take it out of context thanks to an experience with a less-than-reputable salesperson in their past: Selling harder does not mean “hard sell” or unethical sales. It means selling better and testing the “fringes” of your market for new opportunities.

Selling better should result in a stronger business, thus more stable (perhaps increased) employment, thus more stable families, thus a more stable community.

It’s your obligation to sell more and better, just like it is to be observant and open mouth when something’s wrong.

Both reflect your leadership as well as your stake in your local community.

Fishing on Facebook

A common question I’m asked by small business owners is: “Should I use ‘bright shiny object of the month’ to market my business?

Lately, the question tends to be asked in the context of Facebook, but quite frankly, the answer is the same regardless of the magic solution you’re asking about.

As always, the answer is “Fish where the fish are.”

You’d never fish for westslope cutthroat trout in a midwest farm pond. Or at least…you’d never catch any cuts if you did try to fish there.

But..back to Facebook

In the context of Facebook, we’re still talking about people who care about the product or service you provide.

Let me rephrase that: What they really care about is what your product/service does for THEM; caring about you is way down the food chain.

And while it really doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Facebook or the Weekly World News, I’ll continue in the context of Facebook because there are a few Facebook-specific things to consider.

Ask yourself…

You have to ask yourself a series of questions about the pond you want to fish in.

Can I specifically identify the kind of prospective customers I want to meet? (No is not a valid answer – no matter what you sell)

Do those prospective customers hang out on Facebook?

A question you might not have considered…are your customers mostly women? And are they mostly women in their prime buying years?

If you take a look at the demographics of Facebook users (here, here, here and here), you’ll find that (currently) about 55% of Facebook users are women and the biggest group of women on Facebook are 35-55 years young (Tom Peters would be yelling at you not to ignore this market if he were here).

BUT…the key point is still “Are they actively using Facebook and having a conversation that involves what you do?”

Joining the conversation

Is your product or service the sort of thing that people tend to talk about around the water cooler, the sidelines of a kids’ soccer game or similar? That’s the same kind of conversation that occurs on Facebook.

If your Tribe meets on Facebook, you should be there and join the conversation.

If you were on the sidelines of a kids’ soccer game and the conversation turned to a topic that you are an expert on, would you ignore the people having the conversation or would you join in?

I’m guessing you’d gently find a way to join the conversation.

If you were at a Chamber luncheon and some business owners at your table were discussing a problem that your business’ product and/or service is great at resolving, wouldn’t you find a way to join the discussion in a way that doesn’t impose on the table?

Sure you would.

So…If there’s a conversation on Facebook, how is that different from these two situations?

You’re right. It isn’t different at all.

Finding them on Facebook

So..your next task is to create a Facebook account and search for people having conversations that you can offer value to.

You need to look at Facebook groups. There are groups for every conceivable topic. Some of them are sponsored by industry associations or leading vendors.

You might also look for Facebook “pages” (which normally represent a business) that you have something in common with. Interact when it makes sense.

Your goal is not to carpet bomb Facebook with “buy my stuff, visit my website”. Your goal is to join conversations, deliver value and thus establish your positioning as an expert.

In order to avoid spending all day on it AND to avoid blowing it off, treat it like any other work: Schedule it. If you don’t schedule it, you won’t take it seriously.

If it isn’t right for you: Two ways to say “I don’t use Facebook”

Almost every day, I hear business people saying “I don’t waste my time on Facebook.”

That’s one way to say “I don’t use Facebook.”

I suggest this instead: “I looked on Facebook to see if there was a community of people who need what I sell and found none, so I don’t use it for business. I still check in every few months to see if that has changed.”

That thought process shouldn’t be limited to Facebook.

Who I follow on Twitter – and Why

I‘ll likely start updating this list with a new post every week or 3, but you have to start somewhere.

I follow…

@ElijahManor because he always has amazing jQuery (and related webdev) links.

@MatthewRayScott for a couple of reasons. He not only makes my marketing head twitch, but he has a sense of humor that resonates with mine.

@WriterAM because she’s a Rotarian who talks about dog sledding and airplanes. What else do you need to know?

@outsideHilary because she’s a local, but also because I enjoy the combination of craziness at the Outside Media office and watching her work her PR magic on Twitter.

And of course, props to @ChrisBrogan for suggesting this was a far better way of talking about folks on Twitter whether they challenge your thoughts, engage you in thought/conversation or simply because you enjoy listening to their wisdom. All the reasons are right on target. And of course, for prompting better thoughts on ways to engage clients, prospects and folks you want have a convo with.

More next time. Enjoy.

Are you building bridges or moats?

[audio:http://www.rescuemarketing.com/podcast/BridgesAndMoats.mp3]
Leeds Castle
Creative Commons License photo credit: raindog

Look closely at your business and think of each thing you do that interacts with other vendors, competitors, customers, prospects and your community.

For each interaction, consider whether it builds a bridge or a moat:

  • A bridge allows someone on one side of a chasm or river to get to the other side. Bridges are welcoming (toll gates notwithstanding) and encourage interaction and cooperation.
  • A moat keeps others out.

A moat says “I’m scared of what’s out there, it might get me.”  Moats are often built by companies that fear the future, if not the present.

Moat builders often think in terms that are the antidote to improvement – and that “C word”, change. Their moat makes it appear that they fear change and the future because the future often brings changes to “the rules” (you know – “the rules that got us here”).

Working together

Many companies design interoperability features into their product.

In other words, they make their product easy to integrate with other products or standard services. In the software world, interaction with systems like Growl (a universal notification system) or SOAP (a web-based way to send data in the context of a description of that data) are a good example.

They make their product “talk to” and/or “listen” to other products.

Interoperability (making stuff work together – even with *competitor’s stuff*) is a bridge.

Others are in their own little world and refuse to interoperate, or do so far less than most. They sometimes ignore standards or recreate their own because they think they know better (and sometimes, just sometimes, they *do* know better – but do they share that knowledge?).

In most cases, refusing to make your product interoperable is a moat.

Communities have bridges and moats too

When the investment in participating in user communities becomes so frustrating that it isn’t worth it anymore, who suffers?

The company. Long time community members. New members of the community. Everyone, really.

Without a community tie-in, there’s less inertia to keep you from trying other products, much less switching to them. Kennedy talks about “putting an iron fence around your herd” – meaning keep your customers close by doing things that prevent them from even *considering* using another vendor.

Community is a big part of that.

Different companies handle this in different ways.

These days there are web forums, community-building environments like Ning.com, social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, old-school newsgroups, Google groups and many other options that allow you to build a place for your customers to meet and talk shop.

Once you get them there, then the challenge really begins. Do you encourage it to take on a life of its own, or do you spin it, control it and stunt its growth? Are the members of the community like a herd of cows, moving where you drive them, or are they gazelles?

Enable and Empower

Back in my software biz days, there was no social media other than BBS systems or email lists. Most customers were non-technical and spending more time on the computer didn’t interest them (there were exceptions, of course).

We saw a substantial uptick in sales, referrals and hard-to-measure/value “customer goodwill” when we started having day-long training sessions at trade shows. We’d just stick everyone in a room and go over what was new, what the group wanted training on and more often than not, the day also turning into a rich interactive resource for everyone in attendance.

There were benefits for us as well, but that’s not our topic for today.

How you manage – no, no – how you *enable and empower* your user community to become an asset to themselves, your services, your products and your business is critical. How you view that asset (the group/community) and how you nurture it says a lot about your company.

It’s not just a community for now, it’s a sales tool, a testimonial and many other positive things…if you allow it and encourage it to be.

What’s yours?

In your world, is that asset being used as a bridge or a moat?

The mindset of digging a moat around your business infects your staff, your services and your products with thoughts like “We know better”, “We don’t need you (or them)” and “We can do it all ourselves.”

Even if true, the deeper and wider the moat between you and your customers become, the easier it’ll be for someone else to convince those customers to head for a bridge.

The problem with moats is not just that they keep others out, but that they keep you trapped inside.

What would you do if failure wasn’t an option?

Today’s guest post is actually a video, slideshow and audio from TED, featuring Pittsburgh’s Bill Strickland.

It’s a little long (35 minutes), so save it for when you have time to listen.

Bill shows what you can do in your community, in your business, in your life – if you don’t think you can fail.