Thursday, February 1, 2018

Be Still...

My good buddy Mary passed away today.

The last time I saw her, I walked into her room on the skilled nursing floor of Good Shepherd Village and found her standing by the side of her bed. I could tell by the look on her face that she was trying to either remember or find something.

We sat down and Mary asked me if I could show her a verse that someone had recently printed out for her.

I found it flopped over on the shelf opposite her bed, printed as large as possible to fill up a full size sheet of paper. I propped it up so she could see it, even if her failing eyes couldn't make it out too clearly.

She had been thinking about this verse and knew it well, but since she couldn't see it and, with moments of clarity coming and going, she wasn't able to recall the words quite right that day. So, I read it to her: "Be still and know that I am God."

She kept repeating the word "still." Then she'd forget and ask me again what it was.

I told her, "Be still."

"Still, still," she said over and over. "I guess that means I should just be quiet."

She went on to tell me about all of the commotion she saw around her daily on the floor where she now lived. She said that everyone there was always so busy and the staff was always trying to keep the "inmates" (as she fondly called her fellow residents) entertained. But she thought she must have a purpose in being there … and maybe that purpose was to just be quiet and wait, hoping that if someone needed help she'd be able to say the right thing. She was sincere in that desire.

In December, Mary celebrated her 100th birthday. In her century of life, she had seen and experienced more things than most of us could ever hope to witness. She had lived through eras of history that seem so distant to us now, but to her were just a moment past.

She started her career working as a message carrier, taking memos between top executives at IBM decades before computers were a mainstream thing. She had a true spirit of adventure and traveled the world, visiting dozens of countries, lands, and people on six continents, choosing to sail on freighter ships instead of luxury liners where she and her husband would get to know the crew and experience the world in ways everyday tourists wouldn't think of. She decorated her apartment with countless trinkets from her travelsmasks from Africa, a statue from Burma, a mini kangaroo from Australia, scarabs from Egypt, brass plates from Greece, a miniature Viking from Norway, and a replica Tommy gun that she hung over her computer deskevery surface cluttered with memories, photo books, and journals. And, of course, she had her pilot's license, flying small planes and soaring free ... just for fun; just because she could.

It was my sincere privilege to have known Mary my entire life, and she's known my family since she and my grandmother were friends as teenagers. When my siblings and I were young, Mary would always bring seemingly bottomless tins of cookies for us when we'd travel together on long car trips. Reminiscing tonight, my sister and I remembered our favorites: the big round ones that looked like white and red tires with icing circling raspberry jam filled centers. Oh, they were delicious.

Over 30 years later, Mary still always made sure we were well fed. When she was able, we'd go out on our special dates to her favorite restaurants, and in recent years when she couldn't get out as much we'd sometimes just grab a late Sunday breakfast together in the dining room at her retirement home, inevitably stopping at every other table in the joint to say hello to her friends. She knew everyone, and everyone loved her.

Mary had done everything and been everywhere. She'd lived a long, full, impactful, trailblazing life. And now, after 100 years of adventure, she just wanted to "be still."

As I left her room for the last timenot knowing it was the last timeshe simply said, "I love you."

I love you too, Mary. You were a dear, dear friend. Thank you for everything.

Be still.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Understanding Misunderstanding: Sometimes It's Not Just a Stupid Question

A few years ago, I had a call at my store from a student asking if I did key duplication and how much it cost. Being a shipping and office services center, I indeed did duplicate keys, at the time only charging $2.99 per key. So, I told her, "Absolutely! It's just two ninety nine per key." All seemed well.

She called back a minute or two later and said, "Wait, did you mean two hundred and ninety nine dollars or two dollars and ninety nine cents?" I was dumbfounded by the question. Making a snap judgment that it must be a prank, I gave her a sassy Seth Meyers-style "Really!?" Followed by a "Grow up." And then I rudely hung up on her. I did not handle the call gracefully, especially considering that it was most certainly not a prank...

You see, shortly after that incident I had another student ask me the same questionseeking clarification on whether key duplication was in the one-figure or three-figure range. And since then I've had quite a few more young clients react in a similar way when they find out how much key duplication costs. In fact, just yesterday someone said, "I thought making a key would be at least $40!"

Here's the skinny: most key blanks cost me between 17 and 29 cents each; it takes less than a minute to cut each one. I charge more than $2.99 now, but even at that price it was still a great margin on a very easy service to provide. And, being in a college town with students constantly moving in and out, I do quite a bit of volume in key making; I've even done them in bulk for some local property managers. Key cutting is a great add-on to my business, and the operation takes up less than three square feet of floor space at my shop. I love it! My prices are slightly higher now, but remain very fair and still less than but competitive with other options in my area.

I've thought about it a lot: how could a good portion of this new generation of people sincerely not know if traditional non-chip key duplication costs $2.99 or $299.00? How do they have no concept of a price range? After all, it's just a tiny piece of metal with a few notches cut into it. Well, the answer is simple: they've just never had to do it before.

A good percentage of the local students with whom I work come from privileged backgrounds, so they're not a representative sample of the population at large by any means. Most were born at the end of the 1990s and some in the early 2000s. Many of their homes used code pads or smart entries, not keys. Or, if they did have keys, likely the kids weren't the ones responsible to have them reproduced. Their cars used fobs, not traditional keys, with average fob replacement costs around $200 from a dealer (and up to $500 for luxury models). And I think it's fair to assume that they've likely had little need or reason to walk by the key machine at Home Depot and make mental notes of prices.

It's purely a matter of one's frame of reference. For me, growing up in a similar family business to the one I now own, if I needed a new key for my car, house, locker, or mailbox, I would just make one myself on the old key machine that we kept in the back of one of our shops. And my first car, a 1985 white Chevrolet Impala with a V8 engine, suspension like a dream, a giant maroon vinyl bench seat up front, and a fancy schmancy tape deck with a removable face that I paid way too much to have custom installed when I was a junior in high school, didn't even need a key to start it by the time I was done with it. After 200K+ miles, the key starter bit was so worn out that all I had to do was twist the general area around where the key used to go and my baby would start purring. And, after I locked myself out a few times and had to jimmy the door open with a wire coat hanger, I learned that I could screw a spare door key (door keys and ignition keys were two separate things then) behind the front license plate (but not behind the back plate, because that’s where the gas tank was). Life was simple. And I feel like there was always an occasion to make a duplicate key for something or other.

Those experiences aren't anything most in the new crop of young adults have ever gone through. Most have also never had occasion to write a check or address an envelope, so when they come in for the first time and have to mail a rent check to their #oldschool landlord who doesn't take electronic payment, they are completely lost and bewildered. I guide them through the processas Uncle Marty doesand give them a template I've made to show them exactly where the from address, to address, and stamp go on the envelope. They are fascinated by the process and many of them take a copy of the template with them to share with their friendsa novelty for the group.

When they buy greeting cards, at least half of my student clients don't know that the envelope is included with the card at no additional charge; they don't know that matching envelopes designed specifically for each card are tucked in behind the cards on the rack. When they come to the counter to buy the card without an envelope and I point out that they're welcome to take the envelope that goes with it too, most of the time I get a blank stare in return. So, I walk them to the card rack, show them where the envelopes are, and watch their faces light up with excited revelation: "You mean the envelope is free!?"

Many of the students I work with have never packed a box before. They come in to my shop to buy boxes when they're preparing to move, but when they come back to put those boxes into storage or ship them, I'm constantly amazed at how they've attempted to close them. Flaps are bent, folded, and crammed every which way but the way the box was engineered. They use every kind of tape they can find (including Scotch tape, masking tape, and duct tape, none of which are suitable for shipping) and put tape everywhere on the box except over the seam where it should be. It's really quite intriguing. What I think is common sense because it's what I grew up doing isn't common sense to them. Rather, constructing and taping a box is a brand new challenge that they've never had to think about before. And, to their credit, I can attest that they are seriously creative in their solutions to this challenge!

The study of generations is fascinating. I'm fortunate to be part of a team at AMBC that's doing a lot of research in this area. One team member, Sarah, who's a baby boomer with millennial children, is an expert on the millennial mindset. Other team members, Seema and Fahim, who like myself are Generation X, study the topic hard and, because they have both millennial and Generation Z children, bring a lot of insight on the contrasts in thinking, processing, and frames of reference between millennials and Generation Ztwo groups often mistakenly bundled together, but really quite different. 

We study these generations because their spending habits are so varied, and understanding those habits helps our and our friends' businesses market more appropriately and effectively, meet changing needs and patterns, and grow. I won't get into all of that generational generalization now, but I promise it really is an interesting area of research. (And, yes, I did check with #GrammarGirl to make sure I capitalized generation names correctly, the distinction among which is also quite interesting.) (

My point with all this is to remind you and me to consider someone's context when they're doing something that might make absolutely no sense to us or when they ask what we might think is an incredibly stupid question, so much so that we may even assume they're playing a prank on us. Someone may be from such a different background, culture, level of exposure, or generation that something we understand as common sense may be a brand new concept to them. Sure, we may chuckle under our breath or roll our eyes at times, but deep down we must understand that where we're coming from isn't where everyone else is. 

I strongly regret my reaction to that student who called about the $299.00 keys. I belittled her and hung up on her, though she was just asking a legitimate question. It's a hard lesson to learn, but I hope I can understand a little bit more moving forward. Sometimes we think we have a lot to teach someoneespecially someone younger with seemingly less life experiencebut the education works both ways. 

What we have yet to learn is far greater than what we think we already know. 

#AMBC4ME #AskUncleMarty #BabyBoomers #Millennials #GenerationX #GenerationZ


Also published on the AMBC blog on January 19, 2018.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Looking Back to Look Forward

Sometimes we need to take a step back to see how far we've come in order to realize, even just a little, the enormous scope of the future's potential.

I want to share a blog post that I wrote today for my store, in celebration of my sixth anniversary. It's titled "Three Cheers for Six Years." Maybe it'll give you some inspiration that there's always a new solution to find and a new profit center to embrace ... as long as you keep your eyes and ears open and your business model fluid and flexible.

Three Cheers for Six Years

September 1st marked our sixth anniversary in Collegetown.

For the past six years, it has been our pleasure to serve this community. Looking back, we see how much we’ve grown; we see how much we’ve changed. And we love what we’ve become!

When we opened in 2011, we aimed to provide Collegetown with a full service, friendly, fun, and frankly fabulous shipping and business center. And we’ve absolutely done that! But soon after we opened we realized that there were a lot of very unique challenges that our very unique neighborhood was facing, but not many decent solutions for them. So, we started changing and adapting what we sold and the services we provided, morphing into something we never quite imagined … but something we’re extremely proud of. We’ve become the area’s solution center.

We’ve found small solutions…

Greeting Cards: We started with a few lines of unique greeting cards, basically because greeting cards are fun, Marty loves them, and we know how hard it is to find something different than the everyday cheesy stuff you see at every corner drug store. Word spread about our cards and soon we found ourselves traveling to stationery and gift shows all over the place just to source more unique lines to add to our selection. Now, we have a whole wall of cards and change our inventory often to keep them fresh, super classy, and always unique; we’ve become one of the most popular greeting card destinations in our little city!

Moving Boxes: Students are constantly moving and constantly needing boxes. By default, many were going to big chain stores and paying entirely too much for their “moving” boxes, only to find that they’d fall apart after they were filled and implode when anything was stacked on them. So, we expanded our selection of sturdy, durable shipping boxes into sizes that are perfect for moving and storage. We now stock over 50 sizes, all highly rated and very fairly priced. Each year, during our busy May move-out season, we sell way more boxes than we did the previous year. Word is spreading, and our boxes are the best!

And we’ve found monumental solutions…

International Shipping: Ithaca has a very large international and internationally-connected population, but international shipping wasn’t easy for most of Collegetown’s residents and visitors. Before we opened, we got all of our authorizations in order and became the first DHL Authorized Shipping Center (DASC) in town … and have remained the highest volume DASC in the region ever since, offering DHL rates that are less than DHL’s online published rates! We became a FedEx Authorized ShipCenter (FASC) and, through our unbeatable service, soon built up our FedEx volume to the highest available discount tier … and now our FedEx Express International shipping rates are also better than FedEx’s own online published rates. We have state-of-the-art software that compares all shipping options side by side in one screen to help our guests find the best option for their needs and budget. And we always print the labels and customs paperwork for you so all you have to do is sign! We’ve digitized and simplified the very confusing, complex world of international shipping … and do it at the best rates available in our area.

Private Mailboxes: People needed a solution to the inherent headaches that come with changing your address when you change dorms or apartments each semester. So we added private mailbox rental so students can keep the same address for their entire tenure in Ithaca. And now those mailboxes are popular with much more than just students–perfect to meet the needs of home based businesses, non-profits, clubs, and individuals who travel and need mail forwarding … or maybe just need a little bit more privacy.

Storage: Students needed a better storage solution. Most of the options available before we got here were disjointed and confusing. There were seemingly dozens of storage start-ups that would flash and fizzle, often only around for a season. Many of them didn’t have an actual brick and mortar location, but rather just a flashy website and hired hands who would show up in a rented truck, take your boxes, and then leave you with no idea of where your boxes were being held or who was watching over them while you were away. Then per-pound pricing and add-ons would really drive your final storage bill through the roof. So, we turned our year-round Collegetown shipping and business center into a storage facility as well! We offer flat rate, simply priced storage options, personal pickups, and extremely flexible delivery and shipping options on the back end. Our storage has grown exponentially every year, smashing records again in 2017 (and the year’s not nearly over yet!)

And there’s so much more we could talk about … like how our resume, thesis, and dissertation printing prowess has saved the day countless times, how our key duplication service has totally blown up, or how our come-to-you pickup and delivery solutions have brought our services to many folks who could otherwise not access our storefront.

In retrospect, looking back on all that’s happened, how we’ve changed, and milestones we’ve reached, six years seems like a long, long time. But in other ways it seems like we’re just beginning.

Because we indeed are just beginning; we’re in this for the long haul. And we can’t wait to see what the next six years bring!

#HappyAnniversarytoUs #UncleMartysOffice #Collegetown #SixYears #AskUncleMarty


Also published on the AMBC blog on September 5, 2017.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Why We Should All Be More Like Frannie

Do any of you have an insurance agent?

Do you know who they are? Better yet, do they know who you are?

I want to tell you about my friend Frannie.

Probably about five years ago now, I decided I'd switch my business insurance. I didn't really have a good reason for doing so, but the company I was with at the time was just kinda OK; they were nothing special--faceless, out of touch, out of mind, just there in the background somewhere and pretty much blah. Since business insurance is so very important, I really wanted to sit down with a local agent who knew the community, understood what I needed, and, even more importantly, understood what I didn't need. So, I googled.

Frannie ran a State Farm branch here in town and her business's online presence impressed me. She had a clean, professional site, good reviews, and was clearly well favored and involved in the community. That, paired with the fact that I knew exactly where her well-presented office was, prompted me to reach out to her.

I sent her an email and, right away, Frannie got back to me and we made an appointment. She understood that I was running a shop solo--retail hours--and didn't have the availability to meet at her office. So, she came to me.

We sat down and worked out a plan catered to my needs. She recommended coverage I didn’t have before and took away line items that made absolutely no sense in my situation. Insurance confounds and confuses me, but she made it clear; she spoke my language and garnered my trust.

After I signed up with Frannie, she kept in touch. She checked in now and then and often invited me to local business-to-business networking breakfasts. Granted, I never went because, as I've mentioned in my writing in the past, I take serious issue with 7AM meetings. But the gesture was very appreciated!

A year or so into my relationship with State Farm through Frannie, I had a pretty bad flood. A sprinkler pipe in a shared hallway of my building froze and burst and water rushed through my shop, washing us out from the back door to the front. Soon, the store was crawling with firefighters and I was hustling to lift as many of my customers' items and outgoing shipments off of the ground as fast as possible, knowing instinctively that they were the priority. Product can be replaced, but something precious that a client has entrusted to our care cannot.

After the water got shut off, I called Frannie. You know those State Farm commercials where the agent just appears out of nowhere in crisis? Well, that's pretty much what happened. In no time, she was at my store, wearing a winter coat and rubber boots, trudging through the water that was still draining through the open front door on that frigid February day.

She assured me that she'd take care of it; she assured me that I was covered. I needed to hear that. Then she took pictures, preliminarily assessed the loss (which was significant), and we created a plan of attack together. My landlord actually ended up paying my claim directly, but Frannie was on my side and by my side through it to make sure I got a fair deal … and a new carpet.

Frannie has since moved on, contacting me personally to let me know I'd be taken care of by another agent she trusted. She added a pair of twins to her brood and was offered an opportunity for bigger and better things in her field. And I was nothing but grateful for her service and happy for her move; I have serious respect for what she's accomplished!

When I think about it, I honestly don't know how my premiums with Frannie compared to other options. I mean, I shopped around a bit when I signed up with her, and know for sure that her offerings--catered to my needs without extra unnecessary fluff--were far less than what I was paying with my previous, faceless company. But the bottom line is that I didn't and don’t care. I trusted Frannie, knew the price was fair as a result, and knew that service and support that I receive in return was well worth it.

Let's all take some lessons from Frannie and apply them to our own businesses:

  1. First and foremost, she invested in and polished her online first impression: the most important investment a business can make.
  2. She went out of her way to be part of the community, in turn gaining the business and trust of other community-minded people like myself.
  3. She met me where I was, showing me that she wanted my business and was willing to go out of her way to make things as easy as possible for me.
  4. She invited me to participate in networking events outside of our business contract, strengthening our relationship as fellow local business owners.
  5. She kept in touch, checked in periodically, and assured me in good times that she would be on my side in crisis.
  6. She responded immediately when there was an issue, and exceeded my expectations with her professional and expeditious resolution.
  7. She made sure, when her tenure was up, that I would be taken care of as she moved on.

What a business model! Why would we not want that type of relationship with all of our clients? It keeps giving and giving, growing and growing, connecting and reconnecting.

Ask yourself this: Do your customer know who you are?

Better yet, do you know who they are?

#CustomerService #RelationshipBased #Frannietastic #AskUncleMarty

Also published on the AMBC blog on August 15, 2017.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Keep People Coming Back: A Lesson from Gas Station Pizza

I'm from a New York Italian community where pizza is a way of life. I'll take on anyone and debate the merits of crust, sauce, cheese blend, hand tossing, oven styles, fresh or canned mushrooms, anchovies, or any other topic or topping. I know good pizza; I value good pizza.

But I have a dirty little secret: one of my covert indulgences is by no means "good pizza." No, indeed gas station pizza is quite the opposite. You've seen it at nearly every mini mart you've ever been to … heated up behind the counter from a frozen package, with ingredients that are definitely not fresh, with dough that is definitely not hand tossed, kept in a little glass warmer next to the scratch-off dispenser with leftover breakfast sandwiches wrapped in foil scattered along side it on the not-washed-in-a-while round metal rotating trays, and usually served by a clerk with a dirty shirt and smoker's breath on a paper plate entirely too small for the slice so it flops over the edges onto the stained, ancient Formica counter. It's really quite disgusting. But it's also really quite delicious!

I eat gas station pizza entirely too often. Though, in my defense, I don’t have many dinner options on my way home from work. I close my shop at 6pm, often have evening pickups or deliveries to do afterward for my clients, and then start on my hour drive home. The roads between Ithaca and Endwell are not exactly bustling with commerce, and despite my best intentions I don't always have healthy snacks packed for the ride to sustain me until I get home. So, when I just can't hold out, my quick on-the-road dining options consist of an old Burger King (which I've vowed never to go back to after the manager felt that the appropriate response to a friendly request for extra sweet and sour sauce was to use obscenities before berating me) or one of half a dozen mini marts along the road for a hot dog, a sausage, or a slice of pizza.

Last night, exhausted and entirely too verklempt to think about cooking, I stopped at my favorite mini mart for a couple of slices. To my delight, one of my favorite clerks was working: a very friendly fella, probably in his mid-20s, in wide legged skater style baggy pants, wearing oversized untucked shirt, inked on every limb, with sagging holes in his ears where enormous gauges once were, and consistently sporting the cheeriest demeanor in that little town.

They had only three pieces of pizza left in the display case: one very crusty slice of three-meat and two less crusty but still way past their prime slices of pepperoni. So I asked for the two pepperoni, and my favorite clerk looked at me with a little side eye and asked me if I was sure. When I told him that I was, he insisted on giving me a side of ranch "to soften them up a little bit." I expressed my gratitude, to which he responded, "That's how you run a good business … keep people coming back!"

He was spot on.

I go to this mini mart over the other ones because their pizza is usually decent. I go there because their clerksthis one in particularare often very friendly. I go there because I feel appreciated as a customer. But last night, the pizza wasn't fresh; it wasn't good. I really kind of had to choke it down, dipping it in ranch, and loathing myself a little bit more with each bite. And the clerk was up front about the substandard pizza before he sold it to me, knowing what I had come to expect there. So he did something above and beyond to help make it better, knowing that that if he couldn't provide his best product he could still provide his best service … and keep me coming back.

#CustomerService #KeepPeopleComingBack #GasStationPizza #DirtyLittleSecret

Also published on the AMBC blog on July 26, 2017.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Celebrate Your Independence with a Wiggle

Independence Day is just around the corner—a day on which we celebrate the tremendous freedom we have as Americans, look toward a future full of unlimited possibilities, and remember the cost at which our freedom came. And then we eat too much, drink too much, and light things on fire. It’s fabulous!

I've been thinking about the freedom we have as independent small business owners. Being independent means you have the right and the freedom to say "yes" and to say "no." You can do what you want, sell what you want, and cater your business so very pointedly to meet the needs of your immediate community. This is a huge—HUGE—advantage! As independents, we sculpt our offerings so they’re just right; we wiggle.

You hear me talk about my dear friends Seema and Fahim a lot. And that’s because we have a whole lot in common: we own our own independent shipping stores, serve together on the AMBC Board of Directors, collaborate on coaching for our mutual clients, and have studied each other’s businesses in depth. I’m here to tell you that, while I have a serious case of the wiggles, Seema and Fahim have full-on wigglemania! And it’s a beautiful dance to behold!

When I first opened, I had a large section of gifts. At other stores I’ve run in the past, small gifts, plush, souvenirs, and trinkets did fairly well. But I found quickly at my store that my mainly student demographic wasn’t into it. I sold some, but the majority just sat on the shelves collecting dust (though my Swiffer and I didn’t let that dust settle). Eventually, I clearanced all of that out and wiggled things around to make more room for products that do sell in my area: office supplies, gift wrap, greeting cards, etc.

Seema and Fahim also had a large section of gifts in their store when they opened. But their customer base is entirely different from mine and their gift section and unique one-of-a-kind leather goods quickly became very popular. In little time, their store evolved into a well-known gift destination and its savvy willing-to-wiggle owners shifted their floor plan accordingly. When they remodeled a couple of years ago, a main goal was to set aside a large chunk of their retail area to create a boutique. It’s gorgeous! It’s successful! And it perfectly complements their “Spa of Shipping” mission.

One of my largest profit centers now is student storage, even though this offering isn’t very common among shipping centers in traditional markets. When I opened, I heard that storage in my community was in high demand, but I didn’t realize fully its scope. I offered it, but it was a lot of hard work and I really didn’t like it. In fact, I hated it. As a result, I didn’t push it as much as I should have during my first few years. But then I looked hard at the numbers and the margin on storage is fantastic! So, I wiggled my mindset. I pushed storage and this past year my storage business was up exponentially. It’s now one of my most popular SKUs and storage customers often turn into shipping customers—many moving internationally when their storage term is up, shipping those heavy boxes to far and away places through my DHL and FedEx services because I do it the best, make it easy, and solve their problems in my one-stop shop.

Seema and Fahim have studied my storage process, but it doesn’t make sense in their market right now. However, they’ve wiggled their way into other services that have done very, very well! While my younger demographic tends be very tech friendly, doing most of their own design work, many of Seema and Fahim’s customers are of a generation that often needs more assistance. So Seema, already inherently gifted in design, has studied technique and sourced the right tools to assist their clients with amazing graphic design.  

I have so many more examples of our chronic wiggling that I could share, including how I was able to shift floor space in my very tight store to make room for a few freestanding banks of new private mailboxes, but Seema and Fahim took expanding mailbox offerings to a whole new level by building the most impressive business center I’ve ever seen alongside a huge new backroom (more like a warehouse) expansion they recently completed. Or how I’ve wiggled into a great niche in printing and binding master’s theses and doctoral dissertations and Seema and Fahim have found uncanny results by producing and selling their own line of delectable homemade soaps, lotions, and lip balm.

So, as we celebrate our American freedom this weekend, think about your freedom as a business owner. What could you do in your area that just might turn out to be huge? How can you wiggle your way into a new profit center? Where are you stuck and how can you change your mindset to break into a new market?

Celebrate your independence with a wiggle. It’s the American thing to do.

#SmallBusiness #IndependenceDay #Wigglemania


Also published on the AMBC blog on June 29, 2017.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Do the Hustle: Overcoming Hardship Through Hard Work

The month of May is my busy season, and it's just winding down now.

My shipping and storage business is in a college town and, as graduation approaches, the students—the majority of whom hail from lands far away—all move out in a mass exodus peaking on Memorial Day weekend when my local university, Cornell, holds its graduation.

In 2012, my first May season at this location, I decided almost on a whim that I'd open my store on graduation Sunday and the day after, Memorial Day—days on which a shipping business would traditionally be closed. I expected some business. After all, thousands of guests were convening on our little city for Cornell's commencement and we'd been very busy with student move-outs and storage for a week or two prior. But I didn't expect anything near what we experienced that weekend.

Memorial Day 2012 set a daily sales record that held for five years, and a daily customer count record that remains unbroken. All day long, graduating students and their proud, often overbearing parents came in to buy boxes and ship their belongings to faraway places. Most students were so overwhelmed with planning for graduation that they totally forgot to plan for moving out! Many had flights leaving that day or early the next day and we were one of the only places in town open on the holiday weekend. By the end of that day, we had outgoing shipments stacked floor-to-ceiling, from the front of the store to the back, with an ever-growing-narrower aisle for people to get from the front door to the front counter. It was epic.

In years since, other shipping outlets in the area have caught on to the Memorial Day opportunity, though that weekend still remains far and above my busiest weekend of the year, much bigger than the week before Christmas when a traditional shipping store would see its peak.

In May of 2015, starting just days before graduation, we were quite surprised when demolition crews arrived, blocked our road, and started leveling the vacant buildings and houses that were across the street from us. My store is on a dense city block, not in a strip mall, so there is no parking lot or back door access; we depend completely on our curbside front door and the loading zone that always was just outside of it. But now our entire block was cut off. Business, which should have been booming that week, tanked. Instead of going insane with shipping, we were standing outside our front door watching buildings crumble and pedestrians staying as far away as possible from the construction zone we found ourselves in the middle of. I had a very poor Memorial Day that year, down 30% from 2012.

You see, our neighborhood had some zoning changes and, when they were approved, a number of very large development projects that were on hold suddenly had the green light to start. These projects will ultimately be a game changer for our neighborhood, ushering in significantly more foot traffic, businesses, and residents. It's going to be great! But the growing pains of getting there have really hurt.

Construction has continued since that May, leaving my street effectively closed for over two years. It has been a serious challenge. But the loss of a road and a loading zone doesn't just affect a shipping business like mine, it also affects any business that gets things delivered or sent out, depends on drive-by traffic to see their storefronts and window advertisements, and depends on pedestrians who are wary to walk on a block under so much construction. In other words, it affects every single business. We've lost some business neighbors because of the conditions, and that makes my heart ache.

A few years ago, I co-founded the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Through it, I work with my neighbors, contacts in our city administration, and local project managers to find solutions to the challenges that all of this major development packed into in just a few small city blocks brings. This is new territory for everyone and only through increased communication and understanding will we find compromises that permit work to continue, completing as fast as possible, while still allowing the small businesses and residents in the affected areas to function. It's a balance we haven't quite struck yet, but we're working toward it. And things have certainly gotten better recently, though the road is still closed the vast majority of the time. But we now have better warnings when something will happen, open discussions, and better awareness of all parties’ perspectives and the scope of current, pending, and proposed projects. I've personally found that developers, site managers, and city staff can be incredibly reasonable—and sometimes downright delightful—if approached in a positive, solution-based manner; I've learned that making friends is far better than making enemies; I've learned that, if you ask nice enough, construction workers are more than happy to use their big forklifts to load and unload your pallets from the freight trucks that had to park on another block.

We have a long way to go in our neighborhood. Some of the biggest projects haven't been started yet and many of the utilities that are underneath the roads still must be upgraded. There will be lots of digging, dust, and disruption for a few years to come. But, when it's completed, our neighborhood, which serves as the grand entrance corridor to Cornell, will be bustling and beautiful—a walkable part of the city with wider sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping, and a plethora of shiny new buildings.

But, my rose-colored glasses aside, the reality is that it's been extremely tough to make it through the past couple of years. To allow my business to survive, I stopped my regular salary, which admittedly was still menial as a new, budding, growing small business, and began only paying myself the minimum amount possible as infrequently as possible. I had just started finally paying myself the year before this all happened, so I was used to living with little to no income, living instead off of rental income from a small property I have … and a few loans. It was a sacrifice I didn't want to make, but one I had to make, keeping the long-term goal and bright post-construction future centered in view.

I also put off hiring a staff. In my original business plan, I hoped to have a couple of employees by this point, allowing me to focus a little more on new projects, new profit centers, and maybe new locations. But that had to be put on hold, and I've been running the business solo, as lean as possible, with invaluable assistance from the best family and friends anyone could ask for.

I had to think about and plan for opportunities that will come about because of the new developments, putting whatever resources I saved into investing for the future. Directly across from me will soon be completed a giant new building that will house Cornell's Johnson School of Management's graduate MBA program. Yes, an academic building will be my new across-the-street neighbor, full of working professionals going back to school on nights and weekends, faculty, staff, and offices filling each floor of the glowing, glass-faced, open-24-hours monster that is now all I can see from my front window. It's going to be glorious! After all, those people will all want to rent a private mailbox at my store, use me as their go-to FedEx site, and discover that my printing prices and quality are far better than anywhere they've ever been. Soon, they'll all be my loyal clients. So, I've had to prepare for that and now I have a few new banks of sleek mailboxes ready to rent and other investments that I've scraped to make in order to accommodate what I know is coming soon. I also tried to lease the vacant storefront next door to me, imagining breaking down the partition wall and expanding with a new business center to serve the new buildings, however my landlord had other plans for the space.

But there was more that I could do. If customers couldn't find me through the construction dust, then I was going to find them. So, I put everything I could into advertising, hitting social media hard, bumping up my weekly ad size in the university paper, doing some radio, regularly postering every local and campus bulletin board I can find, and creating a refer-a-friend campaign. My best advertising has always been word of mouth, so I do what I can to encourage those conversations.

And when customers couldn't get to me through the torn-up, blocked, and crane-filled road, I decided I would go to them. I've always offered pickup and delivery service, but now it's a daily occurrence with a fourfold increase this season over last. Often, I close my shop at 6pm and head to customers' homes and businesses to pick up their boxes to ship or store and bring them back to my location to process in the morning. Or, I get to my store early so I can do pickups before my 9am opening time. The majority of my storage and shipping sales are now a result of pickups that I do, most involving carrying heavy boxes, bins, and suitcases up and down winding staircases in dorms, creaky old apartment buildings, and pretty new residential complexes. And during the busy few weeks in May when my saintly retired mother comes in every day to hold down the fort, I'm often doing pickups all day long. It's exhausting, but it's necessary.

One personal expense that I haven't cut are my monthly massages. I consider them a necessary medical expense, as important to my personal health and mental health as the yoga classes I also refuse to give up. Regular massages have significantly helped my migraines, and fewer migraine days makes life so much better! But I digress: the point of this statement is that last Thursday, just a few days after my record breaking Memorial Day, I hobbled into the massage studio like an old man—aching and bruised from a killer week of box schlepping. My therapist took one look at me and simply said, "I'll fix you." I told him about the arm that I was convinced was falling off because the muscle I pulled in it earlier that day by lifting something entirely too heavy was throbbing. I told him about the wrist that still hurt after I fell on it a few days earlier when I tripped over a bin of books some student decided she'd put right in my path as I navigated narrow halls and garbage-filled stairs carrying oversized boxes out of the filthiest sorority house I've ever seen. I showed him the bruises on my thighs where I rest boxes while trying to open the series of doors that inevitably lead out of each apartment I pick up from. And he commented that the knots in my back were … well … extreme. Indeed, this season beat me up more than any other before it.
Business had been down since construction started, and it hurt. But I wasn't going to stand for that, so I shifted my business plan, adjusted my business model, and seriously hustled. As a result, 2016, a year completely without a road, showed 16% growth over 2015, the year in which sales tanked halfway through when block demolition knocked us for a loop. And last Monday, Memorial Day 2017, I broke my 2012 Memorial Day record for most sales in a single day by 16%. For the month of May, this year I was up 32% over last year and 17% over my previous best May ever, which happened in 2013. And it's all because I made tough decisions, made sure every single customer left my store grateful that they did business here, and worked my tail off.

I hustled. I really, really hustled. And it was worth it.

#YouCanDoIt #StayPositive #FindYourMemorialDay #Hustle #TheFutureIsBright


Also published on the AMBC blog on June 7, 2017 and in MBC Today Volume 19, Issue 4 on July 5, 2017.