Wednesday, September 11, 2019

That Morning

I remember that morning as if it were yesterday. I sat there, at the foot of that bed, listening to the radio as the world changed.

A few weeks prior, I packed up my little studio apartment in Lubbock, Texas, and schlepped myself back to my hometown of Endwell, New York. I had just graduated with my bachelor’s in marketing, finished up some classes over the summer, and was anxious to start a new career.

I searched job listings all over the Northeast for some sort of entry level marketing job and lined up interviews in a few different places. On Monday, the day before that morning, I had had an interview in Baltimore. It went well, but the firm wasn’t what I was looking for. My next interview with another marketing firm was lined up for Tuesday morning in Queens.

As an introvert, I don’t often stay with people, much preferring to just get a hotel and stay out of everyone’s hair. I like my space and privacy, so cohabitating—even for just a one-night visit—isn’t really my jam. But, at that time, I was 22, fresh out of college, and trying to save every dime I could, so when my old friend Mary invited me to stay at her house on Monday night as a pit stop between my Baltimore and Queens interviews, I was glad to take her up on the offer. 

Mary lived in New Jersey, just outside of New York City. She and my parents were very close when we all lived near each other when I was a baby. I was born in Morristown, but because I was a very sick, early baby, I was rushed into Manhattan right away to get special care at Cornell University Medical Center. So, even though I was born in Jersey, I still made my way into New York within a few hours; I consider myself a New Yorker through and through.

I got to Mary’s Monday night, had a great dinner, then went out with my old buddy Eddie (Mary’s son) for some ice cream. I wanted Eddie and Mary’s opinions on how I should get to my interview the next morning, since they were both very familiar with commuting options into New York. Did it make sense to drive through the city to Queens, or would it be better to take the PATH train to the World Trade Center station, then switch trains and head into Queens?

I didn’t mind driving in the city. In fact, I kind of liked it—and still do. In high school, my friends and I would often drive the three-hour trek down to the city on a Saturday to see a show and tool around, and I would, almost without exception, end up being the driver.

After talking it over that night, I decided it made more sense to drive to my Queens interview. To take the PATH train, I would have had to leave earlier, change trains, and then repeat the process in reverse when I was done. It seemed cheaper and easier just to drive. Besides, any excuse not to get up at the crack of dawn is a huge plus in my book.

On Tuesday morning—that morning—as I was getting my tie tied and about to head out to drive to Queens, Mary came down to the basement room where I had stayed. She said something had happened at the World Trade Center. We turned on the radio, then both sat on the foot of the bed and listened as the tragic events unfolded; we didn’t know what to think. Shock took over as our brains tried to wrap themselves around what we were hearing.

I called the firm in Queens where I was scheduled to have my interview and the receptionist there must not have been aware of what was going on. She advised me that cancelling an interview wasn’t a good idea, but I told her that there was no way I was going to be able to get there. At this point, we still didn’t realize the full scope of what was unfolding across the country, but we knew whatever it was was bad—very, very bad—and I wasn’t about to head toward it.

My mom called. Or, maybe she paged me. It was 2001 and I had a very cool Cellular One teal see-through pager at the timethe late adopter in me not quite ready to make the switch to a fancy new cell phone. Anyway, whether she called or paged, I distinctly remember standing in Mary’s kitchen on her antique wall-mounted phone, talking to my mom who was urging me to come right home. I can imagine how her heart must have sunk when she heard the news, knowing I was headed into the city that morning.

Mary’s daughter Kimmy had already gone into the city early that morning for school. After trying unsuccessfully to reach her, she finally she called Mary and said she was at a friend’s and would be staying there for a day or two until the dust settled and bridges and tunnels reopened. That was a huge relief. Another mother had just found out that her child was out of harm’s way. But countless other mothers wouldn’t.

As soon as we heard that Kimmy was safe, I got in my car and drove the three hours home—listening to the news, turning the news off to sit in quiet, then turning the news back on and repeating the cycle. I was traveling Interstate 80 westbound, away from the city. There weren’t many cars going in my direction, and for miles and miles it seemed there weren't any cars at all going in the eastbound direction. There were some emergency vehicles, sirens blaring, heading that way, but the lack of traffic and eerily open interstate sure was surreal.

I remember being on a charter bus on a school field trip in late 1993 or early 1994 when I was a freshman in high school, driving by the World Trade Center after it was bombed. We saw the shrouded, damaged lower part of the North Tower. It made an impression. We couldn’t have imagined then that, less than 10 years later, the whole complex would be gone.

As an adult, I’ve been to the World Trade Center site loads of times. I visited the grounds often when I lived in the city in the mid-2000s. I watched the progress as the rubble was cleared, memorials were erected, and new buildings were built. I found a good perch from the second floor of a nearby Burger King where I could see over the fence and into the craters where the towers once stood. The footprints of the North and South Towers still show, but now they’re beautiful memorials—places to reflect, mourn, hope, and take some deep breaths.

I don’t know why the cards fell where they did that morning. We hear stories upon stories about those who survived by what may seem like chance, fate, or divine intervention. And we hear thousands of other stories about those who didn’t survive—victims and heroes whom we honor again today. My experience wasn’t as near of a miss as many others we hear about, but it still takes my breath away when I think about it. One simple decision—drive or take the PATH train—has been coming back to me often for the past 18 years. Had I chosen to take the PATH, I would have left earlier and been on my way toward the World Trade Center station when everything began to unfold.

I woke up early this morning, remembering that morning, 18 years ago today: September 11, 2001. A generation has passed, but memories live on; it will never be forgotten.

Marty Johnson is a shopkeeper, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of 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

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Business Unusual: Follow the Rabbit Hole

In this month's Ask Uncle Marty™ column in MBC Today, instead of answering readers’ letters I decided to share some of my own personal sources for business coaching and inspiration—the people and places I go to myself to shake up my own thinking. Hopefully some of these will strike a chord with you too, as they have with me, and inspire you onward and upward.

The first, easiest way to get a shot of fresh thinking is to tune into podcasts. They’re free, available through a bunch of different apps (I use Apple’s Podcast app since it’s built right into my phone), and available on every imaginable topic under the sun.

I subscribe to a lot of podcasts. I used to listen to even more, as for many years I commuted to my office an hour each way, six days a week, and needed the entertainment to make the drive go faster. Some of the shows in my queue are business related, some are personal growth, and many are just for fun.

For years now, one of my go-to, can’t-miss favorite podcasts has been Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness (complementing, but not to be confused with, his best-seller book, The School of Greatness). Every week, Lewis interviews someone new, from big-time celebrities and influencers to business owners and wellness experts; he has a way of interviewing that breaks down barriers and brings out something genuine. Sometimes the guests I’ve not heard of in advance are the ones from whom I get the most value.

A few months ago, Lewis interviewed Barbara Corcoran, whom many of you likely know from Shark Tank. In that incredible episode—one I could listen to over and over again and gain fresh thought nuggets from each time—I learned about Barbara’s own podcast, Business Unusual. Of course, I subscribed to it right away … and downloaded all her past episodes.

Business Unusual has been an incredible listen, and I highly recommend you check it out. It’s very different from other business coaching podcasts—unusual, as the apt title suggests. The episodes are short, so you can easily bang out one or two on your way to the bank, at the gym, or while you’re getting ready in the morning.

In each episode, Barbara shares little stories—snippets—about lessons she’s learned over the years, experiences she’s had, and people she’s encountered. In one of the first episodes, she talks about how to brand yourself as an expert in your field, even if you don’t feel like an expert. Public perception is everything! She tells of how, when she was building her real estate business (which became an empire) in New York, she was able to brand herself a real estate broker to the stars, even though she hadn’t yet had any celebrity clientele, all because she proclaimed herself as an expert. And soon after, celebrity clients came knocking at her door … and the wild success that followed—one door leading to another, opportunity after opportunity opening up, chances to invent and reinvent herself over and over—is history. Her story reminds me of the old adage, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” If we believe and put in the effort required, we can be most anyone we declare ourselves to be.

Barbara also talks in her first few episodes about making a list. She says to take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle, and on one side write everything you feel you are really good at and (here’s the key) enjoy doing. On the other side, write what you don’t think you’re good at and don’t enjoy doing. Then create a career, business, persona, or whatever based on your strengths. It’s so basic, yet so brilliant!

Another gem I’ve recently gleaned from listening to Business Unusual is the importance of creating a team. And not just any team, but a powerful, diverse, fun-infused team. Create a fun work environment by surprising your team with unexpected, fun activities from time to time, whether it’s a group trip, a company party, a night out at their favorite restaurant, or a game night.

Barbara talks about toxic people with bad attitudes and how imperative it is to get rid of them right away. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch if it’s allowed to fester and spread its negativity. It’s so important to hire and retain good, positive, genuine people. Skills are important, of course, but attitude is so much more important.

I ordered one of Barbara’s books. It’s still on my read-me shelf, alongside Lewis’ two books and countless others I’ve been galvanized to read from business experts, barrier breakers, movers, shakers, and even some bakers. Some I’ve read cover to cover, some I’ve just started, and others are still waiting to be broken in. Reading is something I absolutely need to make more of a priority—a struggle I know some of you share.

One book that I’m currently absorbed in, am reading through backwards and forwards and trying to gain everything I can from, is Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. I’m sure you’ve heard of Simon, his book, or have watched his still-incredibly-popular TED talk, “How great leaders inspire action,” which still holds the record as the third most popular TED talk of all time. (If you haven’t watched that talk, please do so right away!) Start with Why will make you rethink your business from the ground up, and you, your clients, and your community will all benefit tremendously from the shake-up. I promise!

Outside of podcasts and books, if you want to go a little deeper into the inspire-me-verse, consider attending a seminar or summit. I’m not talking about the industry conferences, expos, and workshops you already go to. Yes, those are extremely important and events that I’ve personally been very involved with for years. But consider going to something outside of your normal schtick.

My dear friends Seema and Fahim and I attended the Archangel Summit in Toronto a couple of years ago (and together are planning to attend again this fall), and what an eye opener that was! It was there that we and about 3,000 other entrepreneurs got to see Simon Sinek speak in person, as well as Danielle LaPorte, Daymond John, Dr. Shefali Tsabary, Jim Kwik, Nicole Arbour, Marc Kielburger, Angel Lauria, Nicholas Kusmich, Dr. Stephanie Estima, and my personal favorite, Lewis Howes. I was privileged to spend some time with both Lewis and Jim at an after-hours event, and those connections, along with others made that weekend, have become part of my circle of inspiration to keep me both in check and pushing forward.

Summits are great, but you do need to use your noggin when planning for them. There are some that I’m sure are pure shams—charging you lots of money to spend a weekend listening to marketing pitches to get you to spend more money. But there are lot of great ones too, intended not to suck you in, but to uplift you, bring new ideas, and break the mold that you may feel stuck in.

From podcasts to books to summits, there’s a level of inspiration out there for everyone. No matter where we currently stand or what limitations we think are holding us still, sometimes all it takes is willingness, coupled with an open mind, to take in a new perspective; to break our tunnel-vision. Listening to, reading, or experiencing a new point of view is so important to make us realize that there’s a lot more out there.

Where do you start? I’d recommend you download the first episode of Business Unusual. It’s only six minutes long. From there, follow the rabbit hole and see what you can discover.

#LewisHowes #SchoolofGreatness #BarbaraCorcoran #BusinessUnusual #ArchangelSummit #SimonSinek #StartwithWhy #Inspiration #BreaktheMold #MoveForward

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of 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

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Birdbath

My parents just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

They got married on June 20, 1969 in my mom’s parents’ back yard in Parsippany, New Jersey. It was a small, simple wedding, officiated by the mayor, with just close family and friends attending.

Many of my parents’ wedding pictures were taken next to a birdbath that my grandparents had in the yard. I remember that birdbath well from visits to my grandparents’ house as a child. It was pretty—molded concrete with three fish holding up the column, a petal pattern on the top, in gleaming white with the inside bowl painted light blue. It was very ‘60s.

In the '80s, my grandparents sold their home in Parsippany and moved to a new home they built for their retirement in Smyrna, Delaware. The birdbath moved with them and found a new home in their Smyrna back yard, under a young tree they had planted.

In 1992, my grandmother passed away, less than two years shy of my grandparents’ own 50th anniversary. My grandfather eventually remarried and sold the Smyrna house to move to Arizona. But the birdbath didn’t get moved this time; instead, it was sold as part of the property in Smyrna. And there it remained, under that growing tree, likely not given a second thought by the new owners of the house.

Over the years since then, whenever my parents drove by that old Smyrna house, they would stop to look at the birdbath, wondering how they could get it back in the family. They tried a few times to rouse the owners of the house, but never had any luck getting in touch with anyone to see if they could buy the birdbath back. My uncle had tried too, but all efforts were fruitless.

Then last year, when my parents were house hunting, hoping to downsize and move to Delaware themselves and enjoy their retirement closer to the beach, they saw that my grandparents’ old house in Smyrna was for sale again. They made arrangements and toured the home, gaining closure to continue looking elsewhere for a home of their own. They saw the birdbath then, but taking it wasn’t an option. Eventually, my parents found their own perfect house in the little town in southern Delaware, sold our family home of 38 years in upstate New York, and moved.

A few months ago, when my sister and I were visiting my parents at their new home, we drove through Smyrna on our way back to New York and stopped by my grandparents’ old house. We had talked about the birdbath in advance and had hoped that it would still be in the yard. If so, we were determined to do everything we could to recover it, knowing it would mean the world to our mom and dad. We even stopped at an ATM on the way, just in case we had to bribe the homeowners.

We were thrilled to find the birdbath still there, albeit neglected and crumbling apart under that now-grown tree. The yard had collected quite a bit of other statuary over the years … far different than the meticulously manicured yard that our grandparents kept.

My sister and I knocked on the doors and rang the doorbell of that old house, but couldn’t reach anyone inside. A neighbor was across the street, watching us as she worked in her yard, so we went over and introduced ourselves. That neighbor fondly remembered our grandparents and told us that that house had recently been sold again and was now a rental. She thought her husband might have the name and number of one of the tenants, so she went inside to find him. Indeed, he had some contact information and was glad to give it to us.

Standing in the street, I called the number the neighbors gave us. A nice guy answered and I explained our situation—that we’d love to find a way to buy the old birdbath in the back yard from them and restore it to our family. He said he couldn’t make that decision, as he was just renting the house, but he'd try to reach the homeowner to ask "as soon as he was finished with his game."

So, we waited. After a while, we figured whatever game the guy was playing must be taking quite a while, so we might as well just head back to New York. At least we had made contact, and maybe we'd be able to come back down to pick up the birdbath if the homeowner indeed agreed to let us have it. 

As we were driving awayslowly, looking back at the birdbath with regret that we had to leave itthe guy called us back. He had talked to the homeowner and the homeowner said, “Just take it.”

We were thrilled! We returned to the house, hurried to the birdbath, and together schlepped it back to carthrough the minefield of doggie doo and overgrown grass that had become of the back yard. We were in our Sunday clothes; my good shirt and pants got all mucked up from carrying the dirty concrete pieces, but I didn't care. We had the birdbath. Finally! 

We decided that the birdbath would make the perfect surprise 50th anniversary gift for our parents. We knew we'd all be together on a family vacation on their actual anniversary, but maybe our cousins who live close to our parents could help. We made some calls, sent some texts, and a plan began to brew.

The birdbath was in rough shape and needed some fixing up. It had a hole clear through the side of the bowl, was crumbling in places, and clearly hadn't had a good scrubbing in decades. So, I brought it to my home in Ithaca, New York and put it in my garage, hiding it under piles of recycling when my parents visited so they wouldn't stumble upon it and spoil the epic surprise. 

Over the next month or two, I cleaned the birdbath up, patched up the hole (mixing concrete and everything—an impressive task for my notoriously not-handy self), and painted it a beautiful shiny pearl color. I ordered a cut glass “diamond,” engraved with my parents’ names and anniversary date that could be placed at the bottom of the bowl, like a jewel under water. Then I got a big red bow and made an oversized tag with a little note on the back.

My family was all meeting in Las Vegas for my parents’ 50th anniversary. It had been over 20 years since we had a family vacation with all five of us, so we were overdue to spend some quality time together. 

My parents planned to get home from our trip the day after their anniversary, so I made plans with our cousins to bring the birdbath to them ahead of time so they could set it up in my parents’ yard while we were away—complete with the big red bow. And so, before I flew out to Vegas myself, I drove to Delaware, met my cousins at a restaurant, dropped off the birdbath, then turned around and drove to Philly to catch my flight.

The plan worked like a charm. While our family was together in Vegas, my cousins set up the birdbath on my parents’ back patio—texting me that “the eagle has landed” with a picture of it perfectly centered in an alcove; my heart jumped with excitement!

I’ve saved and will treasure the voicemail my parents left me on the night that they returned home from our trip and found their gift. They simply couldn’t comprehend that this was indeed the birdbath—not a replica or replacement, but the original one—and couldn’t believe that we pulled something like this off. Our goal of surprising them was met with wild success, and the emotion and gratitude in their voices made it all worthwhile.

My parents have been married for 50 years. That’s 18,250 days (and counting) of being together, working together, parenting together, housekeeping together, traveling together, and joking together. Indeed, theirs is a relationship that has grown stronger and more precious with time. Through it all, they have remained each other’s best friend and partner—at home, in business, and in faith—and the love and respect that they show each other is something incredibly beautiful.

The birdbath is, in itself, nothing special; it's just concrete and paint. But what it representssomething solid, that after 50 years can still hold wateris priceless. 

And now, it's back home ... right where it belongs.

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of 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

Sunday, May 5, 2019

I'm Not That Old

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Satchel Paige

I had a very chatty Uber driver a couple weeks ago.

On the way from my hotel to the airport, Mohammed (“Ned”) asked what brought me to St. Louis. I told him that I was there to teach some classes and help out at an industry event, coaching other business owners to help them succeed. He was intrigued, so he asked me more questions: why St. Louis, where the conference was, and how long I’ve been doing this.

I told Ned that I’ve been helping to facilitate these events for about a decade, spent five years on the board of directors of the non-profit that runs them, and now still travel to help out when I can. Then I told him that I’ve owned my own business for nearly eight years, but have been involved in my industry off and on (mostly on) for over 20 years (nearly 28 to be exact, as I was 12 when my parents opened their first business and I would “help out”).

“Twenty years!?,” he exclaimed. “You don’t look like you’re old enough for that!”

I told Ned that I’d be 40 in a few weeks. He stared at me in the rearview mirror with a slightly confused look in his eyes, then flattered me and told me that he would have guessed my age much younger.

Ned proceeded to tell me that he himself was 41 … and then it was my turn to look slightly confused. I held my tongue and refrained from telling him that I would have guessed his age much older.

I liked Ned. His eyes told me that his life hasn’t always been easy, but his positive attitude and cheerfulness told me that he has a bright future; he’s just getting started.

I remember when my parents each turned 40. I was quite young then, but still remember the over-the-hill signs, black balloons, age-insulting greeting cards, jokes, and general state of pall that we tried our best to instill in the air. It was funny for us. But, looking back, my parents were still so young then! They were just getting started.

A few months ago, I had to get my first pair of readers. I joked at the time that I was “prepping for the middle ages.” But then someone corrected me and said that “40 isn’t middle aged!” And I got curious. So, I Wikipediaed it. Indeed, the U.S. census defines “middle age” as 45-64. Other sources define it as starting as early as 35, which seems entirely too young to me. But 40 seems to be the most commonly accepted number.

While I was doing research, I also wanted to definitively find out when a person is “over the hill.” I thought for sure it was also 40, but then some hokey recently corrected me on that as well. So, I turned to Google and—surprise, surprise—I was correct on that too. By and large, “over the hill” is defined as starting at 40.

So, with all that settled, I can confidently say that I’ll soon officially be “over the hill” and “middle aged"intimidating phrases, indeed!

For the past year, I’ve seen post after post as nearly everyone else in my graduating class has hit 40. (I was one of the younger ones in my class, so I’ll be one of the last to hit the mark.) Most of them look great! Some are settled in, raising families, with growing/grown kids (and some with grandkids); some are starting new chapters and off on fantastical adventures; some seem very successful while others may have had a rough go of it for a while. But, more often than not, my peers are looking young, feeling young, and still acting young. They’re just getting started.

I returned to my research to see what celebrities were born in 1979 who also turn 40 this year and was surprised by some of the notables: Kate Hudson, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Love Hewitt, John Krazinski, Adam Levine, Rosario Dawson, Claire Danes, Jason Momoa, Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, and Pink. I would have thought some of these people to be younger than I am (and a few I would have thought to be older but holding up well.) But, no, they’re all my age! Some have had long careers, some are starting their second act, and some are just getting started.

You can’t judge a book by its cover. I see a lot of my clients’ IDs and It amazes me how wrong I often am in trying to pin someone’s age down by looks and attitude alone. We’re all a product of our genetics, lifestyle, health, habits, past experiences, activity level, self-care (or lack thereof), stress level, responsibilities, surroundings, and flat out dumb luck.

As the old saying goes, “You’re only as young as you feel.” I feel incredibly lucky to feel young, and apparently look young. Yes, if you look closely you’ll find plenty of grey hairs. And, as would be expected after four decades of wear and tear, I have plenty of weird aches and pains … but they’re manageable. I’m definitely not 18 anymore, but just when I may be feeling a little “over the hill,” someone like Ned comes along and makes me feel incredibly young again.

Indeed, I’ve been very lucky. And I’m very grateful for the advantages I’ve been given. But attitude trumps luck, and it’s our attitude that can make all the difference in how old we act and how old we feel.

I’m just getting started.

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of 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

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Letting Go to Grow

I’m sitting in my little office in the back of my shop, listening to Aleah and Clark have conversations with our clients. I can trust what they’re saying. I can hear their smiles. And I smile.

Over the past year, these two Uncle Marty’s team members have gotten to know our regulars by name. They’ve built relationships and rapports with each, building on the foundation that I had hoped so much would support this business when it got to the point where a team was necessary. And now we’re at that point. The team is being built and, as I sit here listening, they’re doing exactly what I had hoped: forging relationships that keep people coming back again and again.

Sometimes I’ll hear a client ask one of them something and my knee-jerk reaction is to hop off my chair, scurry to the front counter, and take over the conversation. I’m a classic over-explainer, and my ego wants to make sure things are said the way I feel they are best said. But I’m learning to restrain myself and just listen … and what I hear is music to my ears.

Aleah and Clark know what they’re doing; they know what they’re talking about. They answer clients’ questions professionally, with positivity in their voices and always an offer to make things simple. They’ve adopted language that I feel is important, like never saying the arbitrary, overused, and often meaningless “Have a nice day,” but rather inviting the customer to come back at the end of the transaction by saying something like “See you next time!” They always smile before answering the phone, which is an important facet of our culture here at Uncle Marty’s. And they have had enough experience to know how to answer some of the more detailed or tough inquiries; when they encounter something new that hasn’t come up before, or need clarification on something, they push the button on the front counter that rings a doorbell in my office and I come right up to assist as needed. It’s working out so very nicely.

Since the team has been independent enough to cover the front lines, I’ve been able to spend a lot more time working on the business instead of in the business. Yes, I still spend full-time hours (and then some) at the shop helping clients and doing all of the things a small business owner needs to do, but I’m also able to sit at my desk more and work on the books, think about marketing, explore new ideas, and get my head together. I’m able to leave the shop more easily to attend community meetings, travel to workshops to learn and grow, and spend a little bit more time managing some of my other responsibilities outside of the business. There’s still a long way to go and my to-do and idea lists are just as big as ever, but the release I’ve felt in the past few months because of this amazing team has made a huge impact on … well, everything!

We just celebrated Aleah’s one-year workiversary as part of the Uncle Marty’s team. She started last April right after the person I had hired before her quit in a huff (to the benefit of everyone, as he was terribly grumpy and would have soon been fired.) Aleah’s attitude is why I hired her; her aptitude is what has allowed her to grow in this business so fast.

Almost exactly six months after Aleah started, I hired her brother Clark. And just yesterday, a year after Aleah and six months after Clark, I hired another member of the family: their brother Callum. They join me (and my friends and family who so graciously help when I’m in a pinch) to form quite a powerful (even if a bit peculiar) team here at Uncle Marty’s.

Each one of these amazing siblings brings something new to the business. Aleah stands out with her incredible reliability, creative flare, strong work ethic, and even-keeled personality; Clark has a good mind for business and an interest in marketing, and is someone I often use as a sounding board for new ideas; Callum is an engineer through and through, eager and able to fix anything and everything that needs fixing, and I can’t wait to discover what else he’ll bring to the team.

Sara Blakely said, “If somebody can do something 80 percent as good as you think you would have done it yourself, then you’ve got to let it go.” This is excellent advice for anyone who owns or manages a growing business. But letting go means trusting. And trust takes time to build, especially for a micromanaging personality like my own. I’ve found it though. I trust this team, and as a result I’ve felt a mega burden lifted off my shoulders.

I have a 6am flight tomorrow to St. Louis for an industry conference—AMBC’s Basic Training Weekend 2019, at which I’ll be teaching certified training courses in advanced packing techniques and international shipping. Normally when I’m away for things like this, my retired parents would come in to graciously babysit their grandstore. And they’ll still be here this weekend to fill in a few little holes in the schedule, but the rest of team will have things otherwise well covered. My last few trips have been so much more relaxed because of the trust that I’ve found; I check the cameras less and less, and don’t feel like I need to call the shop every half hour “just to make sure everything is OK.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I still spy and I still call, just not as much as I used to. I’m learning to let go, and as a result have become much more able to let the business grow.

I won’t have Aleah, Clark, and Callum forever, nor would I want them to work here forever. It wouldn’t be fair to them. They’re all students—young, full of promise, and on their way to great things. So, while they’re here I’m going to be grateful and do my best to support them, with hopes that this work experience can be a stepping stone for their bright futures. And when it’s time for them to move on to their next chapters, I hope they’ll know that they always have a home here … because, while I hope this business grows into something very big with different locations, managers, and multiple layers and levels of whatever, at this point it’s still very much a family business, and they’re part of the family that has made it awesome.

So, here I sit … listening, with a very grateful, joyful, full full heart. This team is awesome, growing stronger and stronger with each conversation. I’m one lucky dude.

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of 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

Also published on on April 25, 2019.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

It's a Small, Small World

I just got back from a vacation—the first real vacation I’ve had in over eight years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve traveled plenty, but it seems it’s always been for a conference, summit, gig, meeting, funeral, or some other event that I needed to be at. In fact, this weekend I’ll be in Delaware for a wedding open house, then the next weekend in Albany for some faith meetings, and then the following weekend in St. Louis to teach at an industry event. Sometimes it feels non-stop.

I’m not complaining. Goodness, no! I’m incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been afforded and privileges I’ve had. I knew the grind that I was getting into when I opened my business, and I could easily have said no to everything else that has come my way … and to many things I've had to do just that. But, for the most part, the opportunities I’ve said yes to have led to wonderful privileges, honors, and the ability to connect with people on much bigger stage than I would otherwise have had access to. It’s awesome!

When I’ve traveled for events, occasionally I’ve been able to tag on an extra day or two piggybacking them to get a little down time, but that’s not the norm. Usually, I’ve needed to rush back because of my business—a venture that has demanded much more than my full-time attention since 2011. And, yes, over the years there have been a few times when I’ve been able to sneak away for an occasional weekend here and there. Like this past New Year’s when timing worked out that my business would be closed for a long weekend, so I went to Montreal for a few days. But it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been able to take an official, just for Marty, gone more than a few days, gosh darn legit vacation.

I don’t even know if we can call last week anything significant as far as the grand scope of possible vacations goes. It’s not like I had to break out my passport or anything. I just went to Florida—a couple days getting sand in my toes at a resort in Cocoa Beach, then a couple days poolside with my nose in a book in Orlando, and finally a few days staying with friends in Kissimmee, doing the Disney thing. Regardless of the caliber of the get-away, the bottom line is that I finally spent a full week out of the office on a non-event related trip. And that’s a huge win for me.

Lately, I’ve mostly traveled in social media silent mode, choosing to abstain from posting anything and therefore avoid comments like “Oh, you’re in Phoenix! Let’s have lunch!” or “OMG! I’m in Vegas too! Where are you staying!?” or “Why didn’t you come see me!? I’m only an hour away from there!” While I’d love to have the time to see friends and family in different parts of the country, time is so limited on those trips that it’s easier to just not post than to disappoint or offend anyone that I’m just not able to get together with. Besides, when I do get the chance to get away, the whole point is to do just that: get away.

You see, as an introvert I crave nothing more than shutting the world out and having time all to myself. It’s why I prefer to live alone, dine alone, and travel alone. I’m not saying that I don’t like people. On the contrary, I’m outgoing, a great host and entertainer, and have made a decent career because of my personality and the connections I’ve made. But entertaining drains me, and I need to be alone to recharge. Extroversion and introversion have much less to do with personality or people skills and much more to do with what a person needs to be energized: extroverts get their energy from being around people, while being alone drains them; introverts like me recharge when they’re alone and eventually lose their oomph if they don’t have enough personal space.

Anyway, last week while I was in Florida I decided I’d break my social media silent trend and go ahead and post some updates, figuring that I could just politely say no if someone wanted to bogart my vacation with—Heaven forbid—a friendly visit. And this plan worked like a charm. That is, until one of my favorite people—my dear cousin with whom I haven’t spent time in nearly 10 years, since the days we both lived in New York City at the same time (to this day the only cousin I’ve ever lived in the same city as … ever)—saw one of my posts and reached out to me because she too would be in Orlando later in the week for a conference. For her, I was genuinely excited to make plans to meet up.

In fact, it worked out perfectly. I was nearing the end of my trip and had already planned to stay with friends from that point on, with my best friend flying in the same day to meet me and do the Disney parks together. My best friend, you see, is a Disney annual passholder (which, by the way, if you cover up the “p” on makes for wonderful hilarity amongst friends) and was on her way down to join me for a few nights with her cousin/goddaughter and boyfriend, who both work at the Disney parks and had offered to put us up and give us insider tours. So, long story long, on Thursday night my best friend, her cousin, her cousin’s boyfriend, her aunt (who also happened to be there at the same time), my cousin, and I all met at Disney Springs for an evening out. It was delightful!

Contrary to what it must seem like at this point, this actually isn’t a story about travel, family and friends, introverts and extroverts, Disney parks, vacations, or any such thing. It’s actually a story about the power of a brand and the validation I’ve just recently realized in my own brand’s reach and strength. Let me explain…

My friends and family all know my brand: Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office. My business has a recognizable logo and a loyal following in my community and online. My team and I make sure that every box we sell is branded with our logo—a simple step that has made a big difference in our marketing efforts. Box branding is intended mostly for local reach, with our boxes being used around town, acting as mini billboards for the business. And every now and then I’ll get a message or see a post from somewhere far away where our boxes have landed, which is always cool to see.

So, imagine how cool it was when my cousin—the one with whom I had dinner Thursday night, but hadn’t really seen for 10 years prior—texted me on Friday and said that someone just walked into her conference in Orlando carrying a box with my brand on it! She recognized the logo immediately, stopped him, explained that she was my cousin and had just seen me the night before, and asked what his story was.

It turns out that this guy happened to be in my town a few days earlier and had stopped into my store to have his conference materials packed and express shipped to his hotel in Orlando. He said that Clark, my team member who waited on him, was exceptional and his experience was top notch (which, let me tell you, warmed Uncle Marty’s heart more than anything in the world). He had picked up his box of materials (bearing my brand, having been shipped from my store) from the hotel desk and was headed into the conference when my cousin saw him.

I was blown away. What are the odds? If I didn’t believe in the power of a brand before, I sure do now. And if I didn’t know the power of exceptional client service, creating a lasting impression and turning a walk-in customer into loyal advocate, I sure do now. This guy was really impressed with his experience, now brandishing my brand 1,200 miles away from its brick and mortar location and telling someone he just met how happy he was with service he received a few days prior.

Now, to put the cherry on top, when my cousin texted to tell me all of this on Friday, I was getting ready to go on the classic and beloved It’s a Small World ride. I know it’s cheesy, but that ride, along with Space Mountain, was one that I looked forward to the most. As our boat wound through its tunnels, with hundreds of animatronic children in cultural attire singing out …
It's a world of laughter
A world of tears
It's a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world after all

… over and over and over, in slightly dyssynchronous, grating tones, I grinned … ear to ear.

(And for the cherry on top of the cherry, when my cousin boarded her flight back to Chicago on Saturday, the man with the box happened to be on the same flight. Whaaat!?)

My vacation was long overdue. On it, I finally truly relaxed. I let my hair down, let loose, and got a pretty sweet tan. But, most of all, I learned to trust more: trust my team, because they’ve got this; trust what we’ve built, because it’s got legs now and can stand without me having to shoulder every burden; trust the army of advocates that seven and a half years of outstanding service has created, because they’re going to fight for what they believe in.

And I know now—for sure, without a doubt—that the brand I and my team have created is something that people believe in. It’s not just something that has potential anymore, or something that someday may become something. It’s actually already something, and it’s making a difference and standing out in this small, small world.

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of 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


Also published on on April 11, 2019.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Time for Change

“The only thing that is constant is change.” – Heraclitus

Things are not the same today as they were yesterday, very different than they were a few years ago, and entirely different than they were decades ago. Our world, communities, and culture are changing fast, and with them our businesses must change too.

I’m not talking strictly technological or strictly procedural. No, the change we’re caught up in is a matrix: an intricate pattern woven together from strands representing every facet of our business environment, each evolving in its own right as time marches on.

Never before have the mores around us been so questioned. “Why is this the way it is?” “Why do we do this the way we do?” “Where did this practice come from, and why is it necessary today?” We’re in the middle of a reevaluation renaissance.

Einstein famously said, “Question everything.” He also said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It’s time for change.

I have a new team member starting next week—someone who spent many years, many years ago, working by my side in a similar business. She’s incredibly quick and will be up to speed in no time, but through her update process I’ve been reflecting on all the changes that I’ve seen since she and I last worked together.

Most noticeably, our systems have been revolutionized. Many of the ways we keep records, generate reports, and process clients are new. The way we market to our communities is quite different, now focusing on creating bonds through social posts and interaction. And the majority of the audience to whom we now market have needs and points of view entirely different than those of the generations before them, so we shift our offerings, adjust our services, and adapt to meet the demands of the new market.

The way we communicate has matured from traditional phone calls and the occasional email to a myriad of messaging platforms, putting access to our clients literally at our fingertips, and their access to us just as handy. The on-demand world we now live in has challenged us to show up, putting our best face forward no matter where we are.

Many of our newer profit centers are ones that would never have entered our imaginations a few years ago, and many of the ones that were our primary focus back then have all but died out. Some of the products we sell are inventions of just the past couple of years, and some of the products we sold just a few seasons past are now obsolete.

At times, big shifts in technology and policy irreversibly transform the market. When that change happens fast, as it often does, our human nature causes us to mourn the loss of consumer demand for what we traditionally considered to be a core strength. We saw a dramatic example of this when the world went digital and our clients moved toward doing things themselves through online means. We cried for years about that perceived loss, but once we dried our eyes enough to see clearly, we realized that in that change existed fresh opportunities. We had to transition our business models to adapt and grow in the new climate, and it wasn’t easy. But we did it. And now our mix of services has made us much more diversified, and therefore more resilient

I was listening to someone very wise speak the other day. They were addressing a situation in an organization where it seemed like a lot of progress had been made to bring the group into a new, more positive era of growth, but then leadership shifted, new programs were cut back, and the progress they had made seemed as if it had all fallen apart. They remarked that sometimes, when we take a step back, it only serves to build momentum for the next giant leap forward.

If you’ve had a setback, use it as an opportunity to build momentum for that next big step. Be stubborn and refuse to give up without a fight. Throughout history, some of the most amazing and inspirational stories, inventions, and innovations have come as a direct result of what was initially thought of as a setback. I can attest to this personally, much stronger now because of fighting through challenges that could very well have taken me down had I not been so stubborn.

If you’ve felt stuck, maybe it’s because you’re carrying too much weight. Get out of the driver’s seat for a moment and look at the situation from a new vantage point. Maybe you need to unload some unnecessary baggage, or maybe you need to rock back and forth a few times to create wiggle room and build fresh momentum to get unstuck.

If you’re struggling to adapt to changes that have come so rapidly in recent years, months, and even weeks, don’t lose faith. And don’t lose your footing. Take a breath, reevaluate, and reinvent. You’re never too old or too established to adapt.

Change is happening whether we like or not; it’s happening whether we’re ready or not. It can zip right by and leave us in the dust or it can catch us in its wings and carry us to brand new heights.


Originally published in MBC Today Volume 20, Issue 2, on March 15, 2018. Also published on the AMBC blog on September 15, 2018.