Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Valuing Small Business Owners

I'm often asked what I believe is the best part of my job.  As you all know, I am fortunate to have found my dream job, so asking me to pick the best part is no small task.  I could pick the very first night of The Big, Bright Light Show (which is one of my top 5 moments of my life) or bringing the Great American Main Street Award to Downtown Rochester, but those are individual, isolated events that while they have proved to be long-term assets to our downtown, they are not something that I deal with in my job on a daily basis.  Upon reflection, the answer is quite simple. The best part of my job is working with my business owners.

Yes, I just felt the collective eye roll from Main Street Managers far and wide, as many of them
consider working with merchants as the bane of their existence.  This is something I've heard for years as I've done countless seminars about the value of working with your businesses.  Everyone always asks "How do you do it?", or my personal favorite "Why do you refer to them as my merchants?".  Quite frankly, I just don't get it.  Now don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that I have a hearts and flowers relationship with every business in my district, but you're not going to get along with everyone, no matter what business you are in.  But I know that it is my love for small business owners that is a key reason why I get out of bed every morning.

On those days at work that I'm feeling a little down, and completely unmotivated, I find that more often than not, just taking a walk downtown makes me feel 100% better.  And on that walk, I stop into my businesses.  And we chat - about how they are doing, their family, new items, what's happening with their businesses, etc.  It not only gets me excited to know what's happening in their lives, but gives me ideas for social media posts, press releases, events, business retention opportunities and so much more. 

So what is it that I love about small business owners?  I could say their entrepreneurial spirit, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.  Small business owners are savvy, creative, somewhat aggressive and fiercely passionate about their business.  They are called independent businesses for a reason.  They are independent thinkers, laser focused on making their business the best it can be.  And they could have located their business anywhere, but they chose your downtown and that is a great compliment.  As a Main Street Manager I get that, I appreciate that and I look for ways to support them in that endeavor. 

A few years back, I was speaking at a conference for Heritage Ohio. I arrived a little early so I could catch the other speaker on the agenda, who was talking about Business Relations Downtown.  I remember watching with absolute shock and horror as he talked about how painful it was dealing with his business owners.  He said that his business owners accused him and his board of only stopping by when they wanted a donation or a favor.  Of course, I couldn't help myself, so when it came to the Q & A part of the morning, I asked the $64,000 question, "So, how often do you visit your businesses and why?".  The answer?  "Well, when we're working on something new and need to get them involved."  Wow, can't imagine why his merchants feel he only visits when he wants something.

But in that story lies the opportunity, and it's so darn easy.  Small business owners, just like anyone else, want to feel included.  Think about it, we all have those friends that only call us when they need something.  Doesn't make you feel very good, does it?  So think about when you go to visit your businesses.  Are you taking the time to get to know them and their business?  Or are you only stopping by because you need something?  If you're feeling like this example is hitting home, then maybe you need to take a walk downtown today and really think about what business owners and businesses you really know. 

At the end of the day, it all comes down to establishing value.  Communicating to your merchants that their decision to locate their business in your downtown is valuable.  That you need and will actively solicit their input because their perspective is incredibly valuable.  And only then you will start to build a foundation of trust that they will understand that your organization is valuable to the overall health of the downtown.  And working together in this spirit of mutual benefit and understanding, you will build a stronger, healthier business climate that will pay dividends to your community for years to come.  Visit one business today.  I'll bet you'll learn something new.

The Downtown Geek

Monday, April 6, 2015

Hitting The Reset Button...

Hard to believe that this time last week, I was sitting in my first session at the National Main
Streets Conference in Atlanta.  The days to follow were a whirlwind of ideas, information and inspirations that I am thrilled to bring back to my community.  I was fortunate to have two first time attendees with me this year - Sue Keels - creative dynamo and superstar of our Promotions Committee and Alan Smith, the incredibly positive and uber-enthusiastic Chairman of our PSD, so I had the opportunity to see the conference through their eyes.  Throughout the trip, I found myself waxing nostalgic about the conferences, thinking back to the days when I was a young Promotions & Marketing Coordinator attending my very first conference (then known as the National Town Meeting) in Pittsburgh, PA. I drank the Main Street Kool Aid, and the rest is history.

In preparing my first-timers for the conference, I was careful to provide a brief overview and sell them on the decision of giving up 4 days of their life for this, while trying not to overstate how much I believed they would get out of the conference.  I wanted them to have no real expectations about the conference, other than the incredible opportunity to learn from so many experts in the community revitalization field.  As any Main Streeter knows, either you get Main Street or you don't, there really isn't much grey area here.  I am super proud to say they both "got it" and were hooked the very first day.  They attended a ton of sessions and are bringing back lots of great information and new contacts for our community.

So for someone who attends year after year, what is the benefit?  I'm asked this question often and this year it really hit home why I believe this is so very important.  I always get great information - sometimes just pieces of ideas and other times a full-blown "OMG, we have to do this" kind of idea emerges.  For the last several years, I've had the honor to be selected to teach my colleagues about best practices, current trends and share the good work we are doing in Downtown Rochester.  But for me, I think the greatest value lies in the relationships built over the years.  I refer to Main Street as a family and that is so true.  From the moment we hit the airport on Sunday, until we were wheels up back to Detroit on Thursday, it was like a family reunion, seeing all those fun, crazy-talented Main Streeters all over Atlanta.  These relationships are not just friendships, but they are a resource team, a think tank, a national sounding board and most importantly, a support network.  And attending every year pushes my internal reset button so I can leave the stress and drama behind and focus on being the best representative that I can for my community.

I'll be the first to tell anyone that being a Main Street Manager is one of the best jobs on the planet, but it absolutely comes with its share of challenges.  On the surface, it's all planting flowers, painting buildings and planning parties (oh, how I hate that reference) but in reality, we all know it goes much deeper than that.  And no, we are not performing brain surgery or sending rockets to the Moon, we are creating places and that's pretty darned important too.  Everyone deserves a great place to just be, a place to make a life, a place they are proud to call home and that's exactly what we do every single day on Main Street.  And it is comforting to know that when you are challenged to explain what you do and why you do it, when you are compelled to defend the value and very existence of your organization, you can do it with confidence, pride and the knowledge that you have a support system of 1500+ Main Streeters that you can lean on, learn from and build the best Main Street program possible.

So what did I get out of Atlanta?  I'm definitely bringing back ideas and a few new friendships, but most importantly for me, the conference gave me exactly what I needed - a renewed sense of purpose for what I do and how I do it.  It's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day drama that exists in every community.  But in Atlanta, I had a moment of clarity that brought me back to the very beginning of my Main Street journey.  People either get Main Street or they don't.  It's not that you aren't doing a good enough job of explaining it or selling it.  Some people just don't get it...and they never will.  The key is to understand that, accept it and move on.  You're never going to get everyone to row in the same direction.  But if you continue to do good work, to create new projects, to engage the community, then they will all come around in their own way.  And that opportunity to let my creative juices flow in my community, to work with so many amazing people and to make change happen is what gets me out of bed every single day.  I'm very fortunate to have found my calling, to do what I love in a community that means so much to me.  I don't take that gift for granted, and I am eternally thankful for every single moment on this wild ride called Main Street.

See you downtown!

The Downtown Geek

Friday, January 16, 2015

What Makes A Good Downtown Business?

I recently had the opportunity to visit my old alma mater, Oakland University, to talk to a Entrepreneurial Marketing Class about how to open a business in a downtown.  As I was putting my thoughts together, it made me really think about what makes a good downtown business.  Every day, we have people on our phones and at our doorsteps with dreams of opening a business downtown.  The idea of being your own boss certainly has a certain romance about it, but that romance needs to be balanced by real numbers and a solid plan or it won't amount to much of anything.  Am I suggesting that every successful business has a top notch business plan?  That would be nice, but it certainly isn't the norm.  Truth be told, only 3 of the last 20 businesses that I've met with actually had one.  Small business owners are like snowflakes - no two are alike. And after working with them for over 15 years, I've learned a thing or two. 

They typically lead with their hearts (probably why I like them so much).  I always ask any potential entrepreneur why they want to open that particular kind of business.  What comes next is typically a quite moving story of why this business is important to them and why it is their absolute passion and ultimate dream to bring it to fruition.  But not once has anyone ever answered "to make money".  Of course, from a practical standpoint, I'm sure this is part of the overall plan, but it's certainly not the driving force.

While this approach is admirable, it can quite quickly become a serious problem once they open their business and harsh reality strikes.  And since I believe that every problem creates an opportunity, this is your opportunity to step in and make a difference in whether or not this business might succeed.  It might be a hard discussion to have the first time, but you'll soon come to realize you'd rather have this conversation before they open their doors instead of wishing you had when their doors are closing forever.

Talk overhead.  What are they planning to sell and what's the average price point?   Is this product a need or a want?  Is there existing competition in your downtown or in the surrounding area?  Take that information and compare it to the space they are considering.  Is it the right size to serve their needs.  Can they actually afford the rent based on the product they are selling? 

What's the plan after they open?  This is where I see most businesses stumble.  They are so excited about opening the business that they love that they forget that for it to survive, other people have to love it too.  All too often, people put all their efforts into opening the doors and forget to set aside time and dollars to figure out how to get people to walk through that door.  Anyone can open an exciting, interesting business, but if no one goes there, is it really a good business? 

As downtown directors, it is imperative that we don't allow our need to fill a vacant space to overshadow the necessity of finding viable businesses with a solid plan that have the best chance for success.  And we all know that success breeds success and a strong downtown business climate will have entrepreneurs clamoring to be a part of your town. 

See you downtown!

The Downtown Geek