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2019 goal: Be the company your clients desire

My former boss Mike once told me he often says to business owners when meeting with them, “I know there is nothing small about your small business to you.” The money, time and effort people regularly put into their operation is something people looking from the outside in just can’t understand. I imagine for most business owners even when they’re not working its not far from their thoughts. I want to expand on Mike’s thought. When you own a small business doing something people find valuable or interesting, there is nothing small about it to them either. Whether its a unique take you have on producing a certain item, the community you’ve created around your business or how you serve a tightly-focused niche (a triple threat if you have all three) it becomes something customers don’t want to live without.

A couple months ago I was chatting with a friend who has run his own business for more than a decade. After years of toil to get it off the ground, build a focused and trusted brand, he has reached an inflection point in the company. His business has become big enough that managing it the way he has to date will no longer work. But rather than step on the gas, he told me he is eyeing to take his company in a way I do not think is celebrated enough. Instead of aiming to grow his client base, he is contemplating shrinking it and working to expand the services they provide to a small set. Rather than providing more price-driven services to a growing number of clients, they seek to become even more indispensable to a few companies in the niche they have defined.

Despite technology continuing to change parts of the playing field, my friend’s choice speak to me of the smaller but important countervailing force to assumption that people should scale their business. Rather than smoothing out the rough edges of your business to make it more mainstream and appealing to all, its about the preservation of unique and edgy work. It resisting the trend to move towards the center of the parabola and stay in a small portion.

The companies we commonly cite in historical and present lore transcend the goods and services they provide. They make the jump from company or organization to emotion or community. As author Seth Godin says, “people get Harley Davidson tattoos but no one gets a Suzuki tattoo”. One of them stands for more than just motorcycles but is more of an identity and club. What would make your business tattoo-worthy?

My friend Heather suggested I watch the documentary “Tree Man”. Its the story of seasonal workers moving to New York during the holiday season to sell Christmas trees. While you meet many people along the way, it features a gentleman from Quebec named Francois who has been selling trees at the same location for more than a decade. You hear about his struggles of being away from his family during the holiday and the frustrations of running a stand that can be plagued by weather and more but you also meet his clients. Some are first-timers but many are repeat customers. Francois sells in Manhattan and one of his clients now lives in Queens and yet he still comes to Francois’s tree stand because he doesn’t just need a tree, he wants an experience only Francois can give him.

Restauranteur Danny Meyer says, “The number one reason guests cite for wanting to return to a restaurant is that when they go there, they feel seen and recognized.” Seen and recognized must go beyond “hi, how are you?” and, “have a great day.” Its about taking the time to get to know someone, for them to feel like they trust and respect you and you them. As Mike would say, “first comes trust, then friendship and then business."

Think twice before racing to the mainstream. Be indispensable to a few instead. Best of luck in 2019.

Go Forth Boldly

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