Saturday, March 12, 2022

FedEx Feature Article


It's true my honor to have just been featured in the March edition of FedEx ShipSource® alongside my good friend Norman Froscher of Espresso Mail in West Palm Beach, Florida. We were interviewed by FedEx about how to grow a small business and attract other small businesses as clients using FedEx and other tools. The article, "6 tips from FASC pros to attract small businesses" is available at

This is the fourth time in the last 10 years I and my business have been featured by FedEx in their publication. It's an incredible honor and I am so grateful to be a top small business partner of FedEx, knowing that they care so much about small businesses and our success.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

January 2022 Letter From the Editor

I don't often publish my editorial letters on my blog, as their contents are usually quite specific to each issue of MBC Today that I work on, and catered toward the readers of the publication--fellow shipping store owners and managers, industry professionals, suppliers, and those interested in the retail mail and business center industry. However, this month I felt that my letter may have some value outside of the industry, so I wanted to share it here.

The following is my "Letter From the Editor" published in MBC Today Volume 24 Issue 1 on January 4, 2022:

Don't expect the unexpected. Let the unexpected expect you." - Kiara Maharaj

Dear Readers,

Life is full of surprises.

On December 21st, four days before Christmas and just 10 days before the new year, a client brought us some packing material to reuse and asked, "Hey, are you still going to be taking this stuff after the peanut ban goes into affect in January?"

I was in my office when this happened, so my coworker poked his head in and said, "Hey, do you know what this client was just talking about? He said there's a ban on packing peanuts in New York State staring on January 1st."

"That can't be right," I said, "why don't you google it to see what they're talking about. Surely someone would have let us know if that were the case."

Long story short, it was true. New York State was banning all expanded polystyrene (EPS) loose fill as of January 1, 2022.

I knew a couple of years ago that New York City was planning to ban single-use EPS, and I had disseminated that information in the AMBC certified packing classes I lead. I figured that if the city was banning it, eventually other municipalities or areas may be affected—including, I surmised, possibly New York State as a whole. But, I figured it would be a long time before that happened, and surely we'd have advance notice. Nevertheless, I wanted people to be aware of the possibility, as well as prepare for that eventuality at my own New York State business.

My team and I have always kept sustainability as a focus. It's written right into our mission statement at Uncle Marty's Shipping Office, and we're known in our community as the place to bring clean, dry, previously used packing material so it can be reused. After all, reuse is the best form of recycling.

For a few years now, we've even taken chunk pieces of what traditionally has been single-use EPS (coolers, electronics packaging, etc.) and have broken them down using a machine one of my coworkers made that has a hot wire grid to cut through and cube those big single-use chunks into smaller, reusable, roughly one inch cube pieces. The final product acts like loose fill, but is made from repurposed material, so we've dubbed it "ReFill"...and it's been a huge hit in our green-minded community! Such a hit, in fact, that my two-car garage is half full (seriously) of donated single-use EPS that we've been working on breaking down into ReFill, and every now and then I or one of my coworkers will spend an afternoon in my garage working on it.

We have made ReFill largely due to the knowledge that New York State may eventually ban single-use EPS material, and we assumed that by repurposing some of those bigger single-use pieces into smaller, reusable pieces, it would be making a difference. However, we had no idea that the ban would come so swiftly and without warning, nor that it would be on all EPS loose fill, whether new or repurposed, instead of on the larger single-use EPS pieces that we had been working so hard to convert into reusable ReFill.

Because I needed clarification and to state my case, I contacted the New York State department administering this ban. Their response is shared in part in the "Industry News" section of this issue of MBC Today. Indeed, they would prefer us to dispose of all of our existing EPS loose fill, including all peanuts, new or used, and also the ReFill that we make. There was no middle ground and no consideration for repurposed materials or recycling / reuse programs like the one my business has been so successful with in our community.

We're disappointed, as we have diligently been trying to make a green impact with the programs we've run, and our community has truly rallied behind them. Our ReFill program has been shared on local reuse listservs to the point where we've had to reduce our intake to "small household quantities" after trucks started showing up at our office full of EPS coolers that they wanted us to break down into ReFill. It's to the point where some colleagues and I have been starting the process to form an LLC, with hopes to manufacture economical hot wire grid foam cubing machines so more businesses could start ReFill programs in their communities. But now, instead of continuing with a program that we truly feel made a difference and was helping the root problem of reducing single-use EPS, we must cease from producing ReFill and dispose of any that we have in our possession after January 1st.

I refuse to throw the stockpile of EPS that I have out. I won't just put it in the landfill after working so hard to prevent that. And the "recycling centers" that New York State asks us to bring leftover EPS loose fill to after the ban takes effect are no where near where I am, and with so much ReFill stock in my garage the "mail in" option that they then suggest is laughably impractical. So, I'm now working with stores in neighboring states to have them come and get materials I have, in hopes that it can still be used by someone and not just thrown away. And we're not giving up on that LLC yet. Perhaps it could find a good home in another state where ReFill programs may still be possible and effective in reducing single-use EPS. 

To be clear, I do believe that, as a result of all of this, my business will be an even more sustainability-focused operation. That is a big part of our mission, after all. All of the last-minute mishigas aside, the end result and practices going forward will be better. I just wish we had warning and time to prepare. While we support the ban's good intentions, we scratch our heads at its hasty execution, absence of communication, and choice to permit large single-use EPS pieces while banning reusable loose fill. But, no one asked us.

So, why do I share all of this with you and take up two full pages of prime MBC Today real estate with a "Letter From the Editor" that traditionally should be short and sweet? (Though, all of you long-time readers know me all too well to ever think I would keep something short and sweet.) I share this story because I want you to know that sometimes life throws you a curve ball...and that's just life. As a survivor and someone who has overcome a number of other obstacles over the years, I once again want to show that a challenge isn't something to bring you down, but rather something to prove your resilience—an opportunity to pivot, grow, and come out again on top.

Please enjoy this issue of MBC Today, as it's once again full of great advice, inspiring stories, fresh ideas, and #MembersHelpingMembers guidance.

Pay close attention to what Crysta talks about in "Do You Know?" and how her story of adding more retail to her businesses has made a huge difference, and consider what it is that you could do differently or add to your business to make an impact.

Read about the two outstanding new AMBC Members that we're featuring in this issue, Kim Maxson and Jimmy and Michelle Costanzo, and be inspired by their business models, fresh insight, and unlimited potential.

Check out the AMBC Trusted Suppliers we share in ads and features. All of our vendors have been vetted and, as we are a non-profit, are shared and permitted to advertise because we believe in them, trust them, and know they'll make a difference to our fellow AMBC Members.

Please join me in congratulating Norman and Crysta on becoming our new Board Chair and Board Vice Chair, as well as welcoming our two new board members, David and Tom. Please also once again thank Fahim for his outstanding service as former Board Chair these past few years, and his willingness to stay on in an advisory ex officio position. We are so grateful for all of those who are taking on new positions, and especially those who remain tried and true in current roles like Barry, Steve, Mary, Kim, and Brad. We have the best team at AMBC, and it's my honor and privilege to be a part of it.

With care, 

Marty Johnson
Editor, MBC Today
Director of Communication & Advisor to the Board, AMBC
Owner, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office
Co-Founder & Facilitator, Collegetown Small Business Alliance | #AskUncleMarty



Published in MBC Today Volume 24 Issue 1 on January 4, 2022.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

My Did-It List

My Did-It List
by Marty Johnson

It’s been a little over a year now since our world changed. It seems like yesterday that we all had to begin adapting to conditions like we’d never seen before. So much has happened. So much has been accomplished. And so much more still needs to be done.

I’m one of those people that often focuses on the latter: on what needs to be done. I have big dreams and big plans, which is all fine and dandy, but along with those big ideas comes a big obsession to maintain a to-do list—a never ending, always growing, outrageously out of control (however meticulously laid out, if I do say so myself) OneNote file with seven main tabs (for my seven main hats and responsibilities—businesses, side hustles, organizations, etc.), each complete with sub tabs, and each sub tab full of countless bullet points, sub bullet points, and sub sub bullet points.

I stare at my to-do list every day. It mocks me. It reminds me daily about all of the big ideas and big plans that I’ve had that I just haven’t had the oomph to tackle yet. Honestly, it makes me depressed sometimes, causing me to focus on what I haven’t done rather than what I have.

I realize fully that this is a completely self-imposed struggle. I could easily choose to not keep a to-do list and therefore not have it taunt me every day. But, that’s just not in the cards for someone like me—someone fully distrustful of his pulled-in-entirely-too-many-directions brain’s ability to keep track of anything on its own.

I think it’s safe to say that I’m probably preaching to the choir here; that many of my fellow small business owners and entrepreneurs face a similar struggle to keep up with all of the things that they feel need to be done, and all of the things that they dream of doing “someday, when there’s time.” I know many of you, like me, have entirely too many irons in the fire and feel the weight of responsibilities that come with them. The businesses we run, people we employ, organizations we guide, families we care for, and relationships we fight to protect all come with their fair share of stuff that takes time, energy, and chutzpah to get done.

So, how do we deal with this? How do we dig out from under our to-do list? How do we take care of everyone and everything we need to and still manage to maintain some modicum of sanity for ourselves?

To start, we must remember how important it is for us to first and foremost take care of ourselves. It may sound selfish, but like oxygen masks on an airplane, we must first put ours on before helping others. It’s essential that we make time to eat right, exercise our bodies and our brains, and breathe. I’m sure many of you, like me, have neglected to do that at times and suffered the consequences. It’s a hard lesson to learn. If you struggle with this, as I often do, I recommend reading the book I just finished: Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a game changer!

Next, I recommend unplugging from time to time. Too much time spent obsessing over things is wickedly unhealthy. A while ago—perhaps a couple of years ago now (in retrospect, I wish I had marked the date)—I made the decision to not bring my work home (when at all possible). That meant leaving my laptop on my desk at the office, rather than packing it up each evening to “try to catch up” that night. It also meant not responding to texts, Facebook messages, or anything else that was work related until the next day when I was back at the office. Unless it was an emergency, people could wait.

The change I’ve seen in myself from unplugging at home has been wonderful. Sure, if you ask one of my co-workers I’m sure they’d tell you that I’m often still a ball of stress … and that’s a fair assessment. But it used to be much worse. And my system isn’t perfect; I still have to make exceptions from time to time. In fact, as I write this article I'm sitting at my dining room table at home on a Sunday afternoon … but deadlines are deadlines, and hey, nobody's perfect.

Now, taking care of number one and unplugging from time to time certainly don’t make a to-do list any smaller. In fact, one might argue that those things would cut into our time to do the things on that to-do list. And that’s true, but what those things accomplish—for me, at least—is that they give us a break from that to-do list, which in turn takes away some of its power and control over us. It puts it into perspective.

One more thing that I’ve found very helpful is to balance my to-do list out with another list of things that I’ve actually done. I call it my “did-it list.” To be fair and transparent, my own did-it list is more conceptual than actually a written-down list (but give me a few minutes and I’ll change that … and it will be meticulously organized, of course.) Though, I do keep a tally of each time I’ve had an article or photograph published, of milestones I’ve reach, of places I’ve traveled, of bucket list items I’ve checked off, and of various other small and large accomplishments. But, I wonder what it would look like if my did-it list included much more.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the example of keeping a calendar of workouts. Simply marking off a day on a wall calendar gives us a visual record of how far we’ve come. He makes the point that just showing up, even if the workout is barely more than sitting down for five minutes on an exercise bike, is so much more beneficial than letting a day slide—because one day leads to two, which leads to three, and before we know it we’re back to where we started. But if we mark each day we at least show up on a calendar (a type of did-it list, if you think about it) and see the visual of the chain of days it creates, we’re much more inclined to keep showing up again and again so we don’t break that chain.

So, what if we all kept a did-it list. What if we were to write down a continuous chain of accomplishments: programs we’ve started, relationships we’ve cared for, businesses we’ve built, clients we’ve helped, team members we’ve employed, people we’ve mentored, services we’ve provided to our communities, organizations we’ve sponsored and supported, and smiles we’ve shared. Wouldn’t that do wonders for our self-esteem? Wouldn’t that do wonders to motivate us to keep getting things done? Wouldn’t a did-it list make our to-do list look less daunting—more of a record of things we “get to do” rather than things we “need to do?” I think it would.

I also think that, more important than all the lists we may create, the most salient point to remember is that we’re all only human … and we can’t do it all. Sure, there are an endless number of programs we’d like to start, services we’d like to add, after-hours activities we’d love to enjoy, training we wish to attend and/or provide to our team, and so much more. As much as we wish we had the time, energy, and focus to flush out all of our big ideas, not everything can—or will—get done. And that’s OK! It’s good to dream; it’s good to hope.

I hope we can all begin to reconcile our aspirations with our accomplishments. I hope we can celebrate what we’ve done so we don’t fret so much about what we haven’t done yet. In acknowledging that and understanding both our limitations and self-expectations, we can find some fresh inspiration—coupled, I hope, with a healthy dose of gratitude—that can propel us into our next chapter.


Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for AMBC and is Editor of MBC Today. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty


This article was published in MBC Today Volume 23 Issue 2 on March 3, 2021.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

A New Vision

A New Vision
by Marty Johnson

The year that turned the world upside down has finally—finally—come to an end. And we’re all completely spent. Exhausted. Confused. Broken down.

2020 was touted by many as “the year of perfect vision.” As the year began, we had such hope and resolve to make it a year where we would see huge growth, gain clear insight, and make big change. Then, 2020 played out like none of us could have imagined … and for a while that “year of perfect vision” moniker seemed almost laughable.

I don’t believe I know anyone who hasn’t experienced 2020 on a deeply personal level. Most people have been somehow affected by COVID-19. I’ve lost count of those I’ve known, or known of, who have been infected by this horrible virus—some of them severely affected, and some of them not surviving. And then there are the effects we’ve all experienced in our day-to-day lives and businesses. None of us behave the same way we did at the beginning of the year; none of us do business the same way we did a year ago. Many of us have seen countless neighbors who have had to shutter their businesses—some of them temporarily, and some of them closed for good.

The pandemic has bled into every aspect of our lives. Many of us spent recent holidays alone, or with a small group of household members only. As an essential business operator in New York State, with strict travel regulations I haven’t been able to travel to Delaware to see my parents in quite some time. But, we’ve learned that even though we’d love to be together in person, our relationship is just as strong, if not stronger, because of this challenge, and we’re grateful for technology that keeps us more connected than ever.

Many of the after-hours events, meetings, and obligations that took up most of my evenings in previous years have been put on hold or moved to virtual platforms. That extra time and the deep breath it has allowed me to take has been a huge blessing in disguise, and we’ve learned that, while getting together is a good thing and we’re all excited to be able to do it again someday, perhaps some of the mishigas surrounding those gatherings is just plain unnecessary—maybe even a waste of effort, time, and resources that could be used toward things that matter more. Even when we couldn’t have faith gatherings for a while, that didn’t mean that faith decreased. No, I argue that in many cases it increased! In so many ways and in so many things, we’ve learned to value what’s at the core over the fluff that so often covers and sometimes confuses.

Many of my relationships with my friends have grown stronger. Sure, for most of the past year we haven’t been able to hang out like we used to, but we’ve learned that our love and care for each other doesn’t depend on that. We check in. We do virtual game nights. We send each other cards and little thinking-of-you tokens in the mail that become treasures and a reminder that, even though we may feel alone, we’re not really alone. And I can certainly attest that my relationship with my cat, Comet, has never been stronger; he sure loves having his dad home so he can get dinner at a decent time … most nights.

As an essential business operator, changes my team and I have had to make this year in our operations have been truly for good. We’ve rearranged, added safety measures, and put cleaning practices in place that are something we’ll keep in one form or another long-term after the world heals and resumes more physical interaction. And, for us at least in our unique industry and position in our community, business has been incredible! 2020 has blown our best year’s sales out of the water by over 50%. Why? Because we were able to pivot and do business in a new way to meet the changing needs of our community … and because we’ve spent the past near-decade building relationships in our community, and now that community has rallied behind us and so many other small businesses in our area to show their undying support to make sure we won’t be going anywhere. I tell my team often that “we’re in the business of relationships, not transactions,” and this year has proven without a doubt the value of that model.

And my team. Oh, my incredible, invaluable, outrageously wonderful team. This year has made me rely on them so, so much, and value them more than I can express. Investing in good people is the best investment a business can make. Hire heart, attitude, and smiles—those honest individuals who will be reliable and create a family business atmosphere. Good people make good business. And good business attracts good people.

For the first time in years, 2020 has allowed me to finally catch up on my podcast queue. One of my mentors, Lewis Howes, often reminds his listeners about the importance of living with an abundance mindset over a scarcity mindset. The key to that, he says, is to live in gratitude. Start each day reminding yourself about what you’re grateful for, like people, things, situations, and relationships. Because, when we live the day grateful for what we have, we’re more likely to live that day giving, helping, and caring. That’s an abundance mindset: sharing what we have because we know its value. In contrast, if we live in a scarcity mindset—always wishing we had more and holding close the little we think we have without sharing it—we lose in the long run. As my dear friend Norman Froscher often says, “Givers gain.”

My faith teaches me that one of the most important things—a rule that trumps nearly all others—is to love your neighbor. I believe that wholeheartedly, even if I admit that it’s something I struggle to live up to at times. Loving means giving. Loving means looking past differences and sharing what really matters: our humanity. Loving means looking out for, supporting, helping, and caring. In doing that, we all grow stronger; we live in abundance. I believe 2020 has taught us all a deep lesson about what it means to love our neighbors, especially as we’ve been on the receiving end of so much love from those who have gone out of their way to show their support.

A dear friend of mine just texted her core support group as I was writing this article. She’s been staying with her son—a very special kid whom I’ve had the privilege to consider my nephew for 17 years and counting—every day as he’s been going through chemo for an aggressive form of testicular cancer. Today, they’re finishing their third of four in-patient rounds at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the same hospital where I received my treatment plan over eight years ago when I was beginning my own cancer battle and chemo regimen. (If you don’t know about Dana-Farber or their fundraising arm, The Jimmy Fund, I urge you to do some research and lend your support. Their research saved my life and the experts there are now saving my nephew’s.) What my friend said in her text just about sums up what caring for our neighbors is all about:

“This hospital is incredible. What they do for these kids is truly heartwarming. We wish all of these sweet babies in here good health very soon. Remember that so many out there need whatever help you can give them; too many people are hurting lately. We need to make sure we are there for all the kiddos out there. On the first day of his treatment, the Jimmy Fund treated over 80 kids in one day, and that is way too many. My heartstrings have been pulled and I wish I could do more. In the meantime, I will be there for my baby boy who needs me. I love him with my whole heart.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it over and over again as long as I have the platform to do so: silver linings are very real. I believe we’re already seeing a lot of silver linings from 2020, and in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead I believe we’ll be seeing many more. Living in gratitude is what allows us to recognize, appreciate, and benefit tremendously from those silver linings. When we take situations that may seem terrible at first and learn the lessons from them, we gain an abundance of insight, understanding, and compassion that we otherwise wouldn’t have in our lives.

So, my friends, 2020 has ended. And it royally sucked in so, so, so many ways. We’re spent. Exhausted. Confused. Broken down. But, aren’t we also seeing much more clearly? Isn’t a silver lining to this past year that we indeed to have a more perfect vision? Through the hits, the dents and dings, the diagnoses, the hard medicine, the tragedy, and the loss, haven’t we learned lessons we may never have learned otherwise? Aren’t we more resilient? More hopeful, loving, caring, understanding, and dedicated? More grateful? More abundant in the things that really matter? Haven’t we learned things that we’ll take with us the rest of our lives, helping us grow into better people, citizens, neighbors, and caregivers? I argue that we have.

May this next year bring you more abundance. I promise that it will, as long as you realize that true wealth has nothing to do with monetary things. As my dear friend Fahim Mojawalla often says, “your net worth is measured by your network.” So, value your relationships, community, and faith, and live a life full of gratitude. In doing so, you’ll find a new attitude that will guide you through a new year. A new day. A new vision.


Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for AMBC and is Editor of MBC Today. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty

This article was also published in MBC Today Volume 23, Issue 1 (January/February 2021) and on the blog at on January 3, 2021.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Be a Thriver

The outbreak of COVID-19 has knocked us all for a loop. It seems like every day we hear of something else that’s being affected. Schools are closing, whole cities and towns are quarantined, states and municipalities are issuing states of emergency, concerts and events are seemingly all being cancelled, we’ve put the kibosh on travel plans for the foreseeable future, and shaking hands and hugging have been replaced indefinitely by elbow bumps.

Economic impacts of this pandemic will be felt for a long time. Across industries and disciplines, effects of shut-downs, travel restrictions, and general worry are zinging and stinging everywhere. Every time I look online, another friend has posted about the clients they’ve lost that day, the stores and restaurants they’ve had to shutter, conferences they can no longer attend, gigs that got cancelled, etc.

My own brick and mortar business, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office, is just coming off a huge boon. Last Tuesday, Cornell University—our neighbor and provider of the majority of our client base—announced that students would not be asked to return to campus after spring break. Then, a few days later, moved up that timeline and asked that everyone leave immediately. So, without warning, our student move-out season (which traditionally takes about six weeks during May and June) happened immediately and in a span of about a week. It was intense! We smashed our records and pulled out all the stops to get the students’ stuff shipped and stored as efficiently as possible.

That unexpected burst in business is waning now, and we’re staring at five months of significantly reduced student population in our university-anchored city. What do we do? So many of our neighbors have already closed up for the long haul, offices have sent their workers home to do their jobs remotely, and we’re left with tough decisions to make. It was my decision to keep Uncle Marty’s open regular hours for the foreseeable future (details on the shop’s blog), as our business is classified by New York State as “essential” and therefore exempt from required staff reductions and closures. That being said, I fully understand that every business must make the right decision for their own circumstances. This was ours, and it is of course subject to change as edicts and situations change.

Whether we’re keeping normal hours in our offices or working from home, we are all dealing with this new business atmosphere of uncertainty. What do we do about that? What do we do with our time? Do we just sit on our thumbs for the next few months? Do we bemoan the fact that the world is conspiring against us? Do we take on a victim mindset and start blame-slinging? No! We look at the situation objectively. We innovate. We smile and continue to do everything we can to support our community, team, clients, and networks. We look for opportunities in the chaos. We use any down time that might be coming our way to get focused, establish more healthy habits, strengthen our faith, become re-energized, and prepared for future growth.

Years ago, our neighborhood faced a considerable challenge. If you’ve followed my coaching for a while, you’ve probably read my writings on it before, but the short version of the story is that our road was shut down for nearly two years for the construction of a big building across the street from us. It was tough. As a shipping business, we couldn’t get trucks in or out for deliveries and pickups, our clients couldn’t reach us easily to bring in their shipments and pick up their packages, and our visibility to new clients was all but extinguished by considerable construction dust.

Initially, our sales were slashed by the unexpected interruption, however by the end of it we ended up growing … and thriving. Why? Because we innovated! We didn’t fall victim to the situation, but instead used it as an opportunity to grow our network with city and campus officials to come up with solutions together; we pushed our pickup and delivery service and grew those profit centers considerably, and as a result now have a more diverse, adaptable business model.

The same wasn’t the case for many of our business neighbors. Sadly, many of them cowered and complained during those two years, some even closing for good. We tried to encourage them to innovate and adapt, even suggesting that restaurants grow their take-out and catering businesses since the weren’t getting walk-in traffic. But, change is hard for many people and some of these small businesses didn’t have the knowledge or resources to innovate; they didn’t know what platforms to use, how to get their messages out to the public, or the best course of action to take. It was a shake-out.

Now, we’re facing a shake-out again. There’s no sugarcoating the fact that this current pandemic will be the nail in the coffin for countless businesses. But, there will be survivors. And, more importantly, there will be thrivers! The thrivers will be those who look for opportunities and become problem solvers for their communities.

The thrivers will be the restaurants who turn their serving staff into delivery staff and create quarantine menus and specials to bring flavor to those stuck at home and sick of the same old spaghetti every night. The thrivers will be the rideshare drivers who replace their evening bar-hopping business with food and grocery delivery opportunities. The thrivers will be the hotels who create too-good-to-ignore specials to re-book conferences and vacation packages for later dates, rather than just taking cancellations.

My team and I plan on being thrivers over the next few months. We don’t know what that will look like yet, but we’ve set our minds to it … and when our minds are set on something, rarely do we not achieve it.


This article was also published on the AMBC blog on March 19, 2020.


Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for the non-profit Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC) and is Editor of MBC Today, AMBC's industry-leading publication. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty

Friday, February 7, 2020

The MS Westerdam

“At some point you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.”- Heather Hepler

You've surely been watching the news, as I have, about the novel coronavirus outbreak. Every day, it seems statistics grow considerably and more and more travel bans and quarantines are put in place in an effort to stop the spread of the epidemic. It's truly unbelievable and, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, many of us are being carefully vigilant while we watch this unfold—our thoughts and hearts with those in the midst of it.

Surely you've also seen the news about some of the cruise ships that have been affected: one moored in Japan with thousands quarantined on board, with confirmed cases of the virus therein recently tripling overnight; another one quarantined in Hong Kong with passenger symptoms being reported, likely to be stuck there for quite a while; and then there’s that third one that's sailing the South China Sea with nowhere to dock, turned away from every port in the area despite there being no reported cases of the virus on board. My parents are currently passengers on that third ship: Holland America Line’s MS Westerdam.

In their 70s and retired after many long, gritty, hardworking years, my parents are now very lucky to be able to go on cruises from time to time. This current one—a 30-night exploration of Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea—was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Neither of them had been to that part of the world before, and both were truly looking forward to the privilege.

The first week or two of the MS Westerdam's scheduled itinerary went very smoothly. They departed Singapore on January 15th and enjoyed ports in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But, as news of the novel coronavirus outbreak got worse and worse and more cities and countries were limiting travel and authorizing quarantines, the itinerary began to change.

At first, scheduled ports in China were cancelled, and previous plans to disembark in Shanghai on February 15th had to be changed to Tokyo, including all of the passengers' hotels and flights. Holland America Line took care of all of that for its passengers who booked through their services and gave onboard credits as some consolation, even though the itinerary changes were out of their control.

Hong Kong was the midpoint of the scheduled itinerary. The original plan was to spend two days there to explore the city while the passengers just doing the first 15-night leg disembarked and the passengers only doing the second 15-night leg came aboard. As the time neared, plans changed as officials felt it was no longer wise to spend a long time in Hong Kong. They still needed to stop, but would limit it to just one day with restrictions on what could be done in the nearly-shut-down city. My parents made the best of it and enjoyed their limited time there, though of course didn't get to do the shopping they had hoped for; my dad was really looking forward to finding some sweet Chinese silk!

From Hong Kong, they were headed to the Philippines. But, the Philippines wouldn't let them in, so they turned around and spent an extra day at sea. Then, they headed to Taiwan, but were only allowed into one of their scheduled ports there. And now, after leaving Taiwan, they are stuck at sea—denied entry anywhere else they had hoped to go. The rest of the cruise has officially been cancelled, with the captain announcing the news to the passengers this morning … with deep regret.

My parents' emails and messages lead me to believe that Holland America Line has been nothing but gracious, apologetic, cooperative, and transparent about all of the unexpected itinerary changes and eventual cruise cancellation. The cruise line has gone out of its way to help passengers adapt plans, flights, hotels, and given onboard credit, free phone access, free Wi-Fi, and even future cruise credit to try to make up for the major hiccups on this voyage. All of those on board are monitored daily with temperatures taken and screenings performed to ensure that the ship remains free of the novel coronavirus. They have plenty of food, water, and fuel to sail until they're able to determine a final destination.

And the passengers? Well, it seems that many of them are taking it in stride. After all, there's nothing they can do. The situation is what it is, so why freak out about it? Soon enough they’re sure to find a friendly port, disembark, probably be poked, prodded, and screened up the wazoo by whatever local authorities they encounter, and then eventually fly back to their respective homes, likely to face further quarantine once on their home soil. It's not ideal, but it sure is an adventure!

There are some passengers, however, without such an attitude. Some are causing a stir, going to the media, lodging complaints, and creating as much extra strife as they can—making the stress of the situation for their fellow passengers, the ship’s crew, the cruise line officials (and surely customer service reps), and everyone’s worried families back home much worse.

And I get it. People are stressed and some may be scared. This situation is indeed very serious and measures are being taken like we’ve never seen before in a global health crisis. For some people, the unknown isn’t an easy thing to accept. Unexpected changes in plans aren't easy. Staying away longer than anticipated isn't easy. Being flexible isn't easy. But the uneasiness aside, to go out of your way to create drama in an unprecedented situation like this where staying calm is so imperative is something that I just don't understand.

Just this morning, I shared Holland's latest blog update on Facebook. Somehow, some loony person who I don't know got through to my private, personal Facebook timeline and wrote a long, ranting comment on that share. I deleted it right away, but the part I read was awful—full of negativity and blame-slinging. I have a feeling that person was just trolling around, looking for whomever showed up as sharing that blog post link, and then probably linked in from there to their private timelines just to rant, create drama, and cause a ruckus. It's so sad.

The older I get, the more it becomes clear to me how much someone's attitude can shape their life. There are people who dwell on negativity, and as a result become toxic, cause problems, and make situations worse. And then there are people who accept the things they can't change and look for silver linings. That latter personality, I'm proud to say, is found in both of my parents; I'm so very proud of the incredible humans that I’m lucky enough to call my own.

What happens next is yet to be determined. We'll keep hoping that the virus doesn't show up on the MS Westerdam and they'll soon be able to find a country who will let them dock, disembark, and return home. But, if the virus does show up on board and they have to go into quarantine, they'll comply with whatever the authorities deem is necessary.

Whatever happens, I know my parents are level-headed, strong, faithful, savvy people who know that the powers that be are doing everything they can to make this situation as palatable as possible. They have perspective, knowing very well that there are millions of people in affected areas that are in much more serious situations than having to miss a few ports on a luxury cruise vacation, or spend a few extra days at sea. They’ll get home eventually … and they'll have quite the story to tell when they do!


Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for the non-profit Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC) and is Editor of MBC Today, AMBC's industry-leading publication. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty


Mom and Dad got home safely after a five-week adventure. Here’s a quick recap of their trip’s final couple weeks:

Thailand eventually offered a safe haven for the MS Westerdam to dock and for its guests to disembark, so the ship sailed toward Bangkok. Upon their approach, Thailand changes its mind and, while the ship was allowed into the harbor to refuel, it was quickly then escorted out of Thai waters by a Thai navy vessel; my mom sent a picture of it outside their balcony, guns appearing to be pointed at the Westerdam (though they didn’t feel in any real threat).

Next, Cambodia stepped up and offered a place to dock. The MS Westerdam safely came to port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on February 13th. It took a few days for Cambodian health officials to screen and clear all the passengers, and most were eventually permitted to disembark in mid-February, greeted by the Cambodian Prime Minister who flew in on a helicopter and handed out flowers and scarves to guests as they left the ship. (The scarf my parents got was eventually brought back to me as a very cool souvenir.)

From Sihanoukville, Holland American Line chartered planes to get guests to Phnom Penh. Upon arrival there, news hit that one of the former MS Westerdam passengers tested positive upon entering Malaysia, so everyone was stopped in their tracks and put under quarantine until they could be tested again.

My parents were quarantined in a beautiful suite in a five-star Phnom Penh hotel, so life wasn’t very rough. After a few days and a plethora of more tests, they were given yet another all-clear, virus-free certification and allowed to roam freely about Phnom Penh, the Cambodian people treating them as honored guests.

Armed with certificates from the Cambodian Ministry of Health, endorsed by the CDC and WHO, that they were not carriers of the novel coronavirus (now known as COVID-19), Holland American Line chartered another flight—this one through Turkish Airlines—to get a good portion of the guests in Phnom Penh to Istanbul, from there hoping to be able to fly commercially to their home countries.

Up until this point, the MS Westerdam guests had been treated exceptionally well. The CEO of Holland America, Orlando Ashford, even flew to Phnom Penh and met with the guests to encourage them; his communication and example during the crisis was exceptional—a true model of what a business leader should be. However, the Turkish Airline staff was obviously not thrilled that they had to work a flight that carried hundreds of former cruise ship passengers, because they were fully in gear—masks, gloves, etc.—and offered no service during what ended up being a 22-hour flight; guests had to help themselves to drinks and food.

And why was it a 22-hour flight? Well, after takeoff and headed toward Istanbul, it seems that Turkey changed its mind as well about allowing the passengers in. So, the flight had to make a change of course, making an abrupt turn while over Iranian air space. For those of us watching the flight on satellite and not knowing what was going on, seeing this chartered flight do a 180 over Iranian airspace was … well … you can imagine what we were imagining.

The flight was able to land in Kirachi, Pakistan, where they sat on the ground for four hours, not allowed to get up out of their seats … even to use the bathroom. Then, up and away again, finally landing in Amsterdam 22 hours after takeoff from Phnom Penh. It was quite a flight to remember!

From Amsterdam, my parents were allowed to fly commercial to Frankfurt, then from there to Philadelphia. But, their adventure wasn’t over yet, as one flight was met on the ground by flashing lights—ambulances, police cars, etc.—while they were screened once more before being permitted to enter the crowded airport.

When we knew they’d be home soon, my cousins who live near my parents went over to get their house ready, leave some groceries, and warm their home up so they wouldn’t walk into a five-week neglected space. My parents’ neighbor, not recognizing my cousins, called the police when they saw my cousins entering the house. The officer who responded got a good chuckle when he realized what the situation was; rarely do the police see robbers who enter a home with a key, carrying a toddler, then proceed to turn on all the lights, fill the fridge, and heat up a pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove.

So, my parents are home safe. They came to visit a couple of weeks ago, but now that COVID-19 has turned into a global pandemic, they’re choosing to remain safely in their home to ride it out.

And, after all of that, that one passenger who had tested positive upon entering Malaysia—causing all the rest of the passengers to be halted and plans disrupted—turned out to be negative for COVID-19 after all. Whether it was an honest mistake or a political play is unknown, but it sure did cause considerable headache—and many millions of dollars in expenses—for those affected.

The last few months have been nothing short of topsy-turvy. And the next few are sure to be just as wild.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Novel Coronavirus: Keep Your Team Safe

The novel coronavirus outbreak is no joke. Every day, statistics are expanding and more cities, countries, and populations are being affected. Should we be panicked?
This news hits closer to home for some more than others. At my shipping business, I have a very large international student client base, and for the past couple of weeks have been steadily shipping boxes of masks, gloves, and other medical supplies to their friends and families in affected areas; their stories both warm and break my heart. 
My parents have been on a cruise for a few weeks now. Their 30-day trip aboard the MS Westerdam left from Singapore mid-January and was slated to finish in Shanghai mid-February. That itinerary, of course, has been affected and they will no longer be hitting any ports in China, instead hoping to end in Tokyo. Because of stops they've already made to places that are now experiencing lock-downs, even though there are no suspected cases on their vessel, they're being blocked from entering some other ports and had to cancel stops in the Philippines and other areas. Despite a few outliers--the dramatic, attention-seeking, make-the-situation-worse people on board who are causing a stink because plans changed and flights had to be adjusted--my parents and the vast majority of the passengers are very happy with the cruise line's care, caution, and compensation regarding the unexpected route changes. Each passenger has their temperature taken daily and, as my mom says, "There are much worse places to be stuck!" 
I am in no way trying to draw a comparison to my parents' non-drama of having some ports changed on a plush, month-long cruise, or the possible quarantine or delays they may face in getting back home, to the trials that people on the ground in affected areas are facing. There are whole cities--millions of people--completely blockaded in an effort to contain this thing. It's unprecedented! The reason we're shipping so many masks is because there's such a profound shortage in the most desperate areas. As a result, those who have family and friends in other countries are asking them to ship supplies in that are otherwise unavailable. There's such a run on supplies in my city that, the last time I heard, all of the big box stores were sold out of masks; even Amazon is/was sold out too, to my understanding.
There are now suspected cases in my community, though nothing is confirmed yet and no warnings have been issued. Nevertheless, we're preparing ... just in case. 
I felt it pertinent to share some of my lay suggestions with you, which are similar to practices you may use in your own home, office, or retail store during flu season, keeping in mind that I am a non-medical small business owner simply trying my best to make sure my team stays level-headed and protected if indeed our city becomes affected.
  • Wash your hands often. Studies consistently show this is one of the simplest, yet best forms of defense.
  • Wipe door handles with disinfectant often. Don’t forget the bathroom door(s), cabinet pulls, drawer pulls, and especially the front door(s)–both sides.
  • Wipe keyboards, mice, phones, tools, printer buttons, pay station key pads, cart handles, and other oft-touched things with disinfectant often.
  • Replace pens that both clients and you use often. You can keep a bag of clean, disinfected pens, and also a bag of used pens that can be disinfected later for reuse.
  • Keep an emergency kit with masks and gloves on hand, just in case.
  • Closely monitor and comply fully with whatever your local authorities advise.

So, panic? Not yet. But surely stay wisely cautious. Stay informed so you can educate your team and your clients. I suggest listening to the special edition episode of Science Vs. on this topic, as it gives a good overview of what we know so far, acknowledging that this is all still very new and information breaking daily. That episode is available here:

It's also important to be cautious of prejudices that may result from misinformation or ignorant generalization. You'd think that we humans would have learned this lesson by now, but our history shows over and over again that a situation like this can cause phobias against entire groups of people, simply because their group was the one initially affected. Be careful of that, protecting your empathy and intelligence just as much as you're protecting your bodies. Continue to treat everyone with respect and compassion, doing what you can to help those in need.
This article is an adaption of one written for the AMBC blog on February 5, 2020.
Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for the non-profit Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC) and is Editor of MBC Today, AMBC's industry-leading publication. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty