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