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.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What If?

I was listening to a TED Talk yesterday. Well, it was really a TED discussion. Chris Anderson was interviewing Elon Musk—you know, the genius behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, Hyperloop, etc.—and the discussion was fascinating!

I always enjoy hearing Elon speak about the projects he's working on. He doesn't seem constrained by the limits most people put on what could be possible. If there's a problem, no matter how unsolvable it may seem, he comes up with a grand solution and presents it in a matter-of-fact "yeah, we can totally do this" fashion.

He spent a good part of the discussion answering questions about The Boring Company, one of his latest brainchildren, and how he's looking to solve Los Angeles congestion by digging down instead of building up—totally rethinking the way we dig tunnels to create a massive underground network potentially allowing a vehicle to get from Westwood to LAX in six minutes. It's nuts. I love it!

But what really caught my attention was when the conversation turned to SpaceX and Elon's ideas for a Mars colony. He and Chris were talking about a future where we, as humans, are a space-faring multi-planet species. And I think most of us, myself certainly included, just assumed this is what the future holds. But Elon made it very clear that this destiny is not by any means imminent.

Elon explained, "Then there's becoming a multi-planet species and space-faring civilization. This is not inevitable. It's very important to appreciate this is not inevitable."
He then mentioned the space program, "If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 you were able to send somebody to the moon. 1969. Then we had the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit. Then the Space Shuttle retired, and the United States could take no one to orbit. So that's the trend. The trend is like down to nothing."

I never thought about that. I guess I, probably like most people, just thought that we're naturally getting better and better; that progress just happens as a fixed course. But Elon rebutted that mindset and said, "People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better, and actually it will, I think, by itself degrade, actually."
He then mentioned how the Ancient Egyptians developed the technology to build the great pyramids, but then forgot how to do it. And the Romans built the magnificent aqueducts, and then forgot how to do it.  

How many times in our own experience have we tried to do something we once were great at and mess it up royally? We get out of practice … and we forget. And if we don't put effort into improving, growing, tweaking, and sometimes completely reinventing, we'll get stale and eventually go backward.

Our businesses need constant attention. We can't get too comfortable. We can't just go forward for years in the status quo. Because the market is constantly changing, our customers' needs are constantly changing, and the way in which we process, deliver, source, and serve should always be adaptable to meet those needs.

And sometimes we have to look at our situations completely objectively. We must let go of all the constraints that we put our minds in and think, "What if!?" What if we dig tunnels instead of going up? What if we retire our old low-orbiting space shuttle and build a new kind of rocket that will take us much, much further? What if we break out of the path that we're stuck in and think about going to new worlds instead?

You can do anything. Your business isn't limited by where it is right now or the way it's always done stuff. Go ahead and break the mold.

What if?

#TEDTalks #ElonMusk #WhatIf


Also published on the AMBC blog on May 16, 2017.

Saturday, May 6, 2017


I want to share a letter with you, but feel I must give a little background first…

I'm on the board of directors for the Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC), a non-profit group that provides advocacy, certification, and training for independent shipping stores across the country. Established in 1982, it's the oldest trade association in a very unique industry, and our bi-monthly magazine, MBC Today, is the most established and well respected trade publication in the space; it's read by thousands of shipping store owners and industry partners across the country, including top executives at the major shipping companies (FedEx, DHL, UPS, USPS, etc.), suppliers, vendors, and other shipping nerds like myself worldwide.

I've written articles for MBC Today for years, long before I joined the AMBC board of directors in 2014. It has been a true privilege! And, in just the past year or two, we launched the AMBC blog and I've had the honor of writing for that regularly as well.

A few years ago, I started a new industry-related advice column in MBC Today titled ... you guessed it ... Ask Uncle Marty™. It's somewhat tongue-in-cheek, traditional advice column style, where shipping store owners write in asking about everything from how to pack certain items and how to market their stores to what products to carry and how to ensure they're complying with safety regulations. I have fun changing names to keep it anonymous, and am very pleased that the column has been very well received and a favorite feature of the magazine.

There's a lot that I write for MBC Today and the AMBC blog that I don't publish here, mainly because those articles are so industry specific that they wouldn't interest the general public. But this past month, I decided to do something different in the Ask Uncle Marty™ column … and I thought it would be appropriate to share with you now.

So here it is: the Ask Uncle Marty™ that was just published in MBC Today Volume 19, Issue 3 (May/June 2017):

Dear Readers,

I want to take an opportunity to thank you for your continued support of Ask Uncle Marty™. It means a lot to me to have such interest, and your questions are all so interesting. Keep them coming!

I’m going to flush the format this month, not publish any letters, and instead address something that I see as a common theme in many messages that I receive: overwhelm.

A lot of you write in about different situations you face. Many times, you’re wondering what to do about a certain customer that’s driving you crazy, or how to handle a scenario you’ve never encountered before. And sometimes you write just to vent because you’re completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to turn or what to do.

I totally get this. Overwhelm is a battle I also fight every day. I mean, c’mon, we’re small business owners; overwhelm is a way of life for us! And when I’m really overwhelmed, I get flustered; when I get flustered, I get frustrated; when I get frustrated, I get a smelly rotten attitude. It’s not pretty.

There are countless examples I could share about how I’ve overreacted and behaved entirely foolishly in overwhelming situations. I could tell you about all the hissy fits, tantrums, and tape measures I’ve thrown. I could recant the sordid, melodramatic story of how, last November, I had a complete breakdown in front of a street full of passersby and construction workers after I fell off a wobbly stool trying to hang Christmas lights in my display window—screaming, swearing, crying, bleeding, kicking boxes, and generally behaving like a belligerent orangutan because I landed on top of said wobbly stool, smashed it into splinters, and tore my favorite pair of jeans. Or I could regale you with the tale of how yesterday I destroyed my lovely metal yardstick when I stomped on it and bent it completely out of shape in an outrageous fit of senseless rage because the beautiful custom-made 48x15x11 box for a fencing bag (as in a bag full of fencing equipment—foils, helmets, etc.) that I just meticulously made actually needed to be 48x17x11 because I forgot to measure the bag’s wheel width. But I’ll save you the drama...

What I want you to understand is that overwhelm is normal. It doesn’t mean that you’re weird, out of control, or not going to make it. It just means that you need to find a coping mechanism. For me, I’ve discovered yoga. And I know that, no matter how much I’m freaking out, a little Dolly Parton in my ears can fix any mood.

But usually when we get an attack of overwhelm, we’re at our stores—busy bees, dancing that intricate, multi-tasking, awkwardly graceful shipping store ballet that we all perform so well when we’re under pressure and making sure each customer is treated like a queen. In these situations, we can’t take the time to go into the back and downward dog for five minutes; we can’t put on our earbuds and jam out to Jolene because, dang it, there’s a line of people waiting for us at the counter!

So what do we do?

Sarah often tells about her secret weapon: a tube of lipstick she keeps ready at all times. When she feels like she's about to snap, she puckers up, paints her lips, takes a deep breath, and literally puts her best face forward. She's no stranger to working through hard, rough days while presenting her customers with nothing but sunshine and rainbows. I admire her.

The AMBC board and staff are tight. We’ve all become very good friends, so often when we’re feeling too much pressure we turn to each other. Sarah’s reaction to my sputtering and spinning out of control is usually to tell me to, “Breathe!” And I’ll admit that sometimes that’s exactly what I don’t want to hear. But it’s what I need to hear, and she knows that. Kim, on the other hand, when I start sputtering and spinning will just roll her eyes and say, “Seriously!?” And I love that too, because Kim knows what a drama queen I can be at times and has no problem smacking me back into reality. Indeed, I adore my colleagues!

Having someone around you that can help you cope—whether that’s advising you to take a beat, a few breaths, and recollect yourself, or telling you to snap out of it because it’s really not as bad as what you’re making it out to be—is important. Maybe that’s a co-worker, partner, spouse, child, parent, or friend. Or maybe it’s simply another AMBC member with whom you’ve made a “calm me down when I need it” pact. #MembersHelpingMembers

So why do I tell you all of this? Why should you care who I turn to for support? Why should you care about my public displays of emotional ugliness? You shouldn't. And I don't want you to think that just because I've lost my temper from time to time and broken down in a puddle of tears in my display window that it's OK for you to do so. Please don't follow my example, though know I fully understand when and if it happens to you; it happens to the best of us. But I tell you this because I want you to stop and think about how you vent, and consider very carefully the media, forum, and audience that you show your unpleasant side to … because, as small business owners, we're always in the public eye. Every social media post, every customer interaction, every nod at the grocery store, and every public example of grace—or breakdown of the same—reflects on our business's image.
And because we’re small business owners, we often don't have the luxury of taking personal days. We work through tragedy, through sickness, through snow days, through soccer games and recitals, and through times when we'd rather be anywhere other than waiting on customers. Doom and gloom inside, we must shine on the outside. It takes skill, and sometimes it takes some serious acting chops. But we do it … because that's our job. 

I’ve told you about Yogi Linda before on the AMBC blog. She leads my favorite Monday night yin class. If you remember my blog post Don’t Feed the Wolves from a few months ago, Linda was the one who inspiringly kept saying, "Don't feed the wolves. Water the flowers instead." Well, she had some more great wisdom recently and said, "We all have pain, but it's our choice whether or not we create drama around it. Suffering is optional."

I challenge you to choose to not suffer. Rather, take control and do your dang best. Because look how far you’ve come already! You own a business. You’re the boss. You’re in charge and the captain of your own ship. And if I may be extremely cliché, the world is your oyster, and there’s a pearl waiting inside just for you.

So find your lipstick, put your best face forward, then pucker up and give the public a big ol’ smack of awesomeness … because that’s your job.


#AskUncleMarty #AMBC4ME #MBCToday #Overwhelm #SufferingIsOptional

Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Own Private Elton John Concert

Facebook is exploding today with the list-10-bands thing. I'm sure you've seen it: people list 10 bands but only nine they've actually seen in concert, and then everyone replies with their guess as to which band is the fake, etc. It's really quite exhausting. But it got me reminiscing…

When I was an undergrad at Texas Tech, I had a job working for the athletic department in the Double T Shoppes. We sold Tech clothing, tchotchkes, car flags, noisemakers, and all kinds of red and black fanfare flare. We also set up vending booths at all of the Tech football, basketball, and baseball games. It was really kind of fun, and a whole new world for me—a kid from New York exploring my West Texas roots, excited for my very first job outside of the family business I grew up in—and soon after I started as a student assistant, they gave me quite a bit of responsibility and realized that I had a good eye for setting up displays and working with store layout and stuff.

In October of 1999, Texas Tech University built an enormous new Spanish Renaissance-style basketball arena: the United Spirit Arena. It was/is massive, and soon after I started working with the department we had the opportunity to open a brand new, gleaming Double T Shoppe in the new arena's main lobby—the first thing you would see when you walked through the main doors. So I worked as part of the team that set that store up, figured out where everything would go, got the product mix right, and on opening day it was a big hit! (And it happened about the same time as a big logo revamp for the university—going from a 2D to a 3D style "Double T" logo, which I, as a marketing major, totally nerded out over.)

Working in the brand spankin' new arena was a blast! I got to know its back entrances, unseen corridors, and inner workings; it was quite an impressive machine! And it just so happened that our shop was between the basketball coaches' offices, and Marsha Sharp at the time was the NCAA Champion Lady Raiders Head Coach. She was a local hero, and my office neighbor.

And then we hired Bobby Knight to coach the men's basketball team: the Red Raiders. His decision to move to Lubbock to join the Tech family was a whole giant event in itself because he was fresh off of his Indiana University drama and starting a new chapter in his legendary career. We had shirts made to welcome him, and for the longest time, upon every entrance he made to the arena, we blasted "Night Fever" (but of course spelled it "Knight Fever"). It was all in good fun, and Coach Knight was really a good sport. I truly enjoyed working near Coaches Sharp and Knight, and when I graduated they both signed a basketball for me—a piece of memorabilia that I regrettably sold years ago, trying to make ends meet during a figure-it-out moment.

(I know this article is about Elton John. And I'm sure at this point you're all kinds of wondering how that's going to fit into this story which, up until now, seems to be about basketball. But obviously I'm busy name dropping right now. And I'll get to Elton soon, I promise. I'm setting the stage…)

I started running (or at least was a lead on the team that ran) the vending for all of the Lady Raider and Red Raider basketball games at the new arena. For a kid that never really understood or cared about sports growing up, I caught a serious case of Raider fever; I never missed a game! So after a few months of kicking serious tail doing the arena's sporting event vending, I was approached by a promoter who was planning to hold some major concerts at our brand new venue. He needed a local team to set up vending for the artists' merchandise and offered to pay a significant sum (for a poor college kid like me, anyway) if I and a few coworkers of mine helped him out. So, of course, I jumped at the opportunity!

Elton John was slated to play the inaugural concert at the United Spirit Arena. We hadn't hosted a concert yet, so I got to the arena incredibly early to make sure the booths were set up correctly, get to know the product that we'd be selling, and do all of the responsible things that a hardworking 20-year-old who's trying to make a really good impression does. After setting up and making everything look fantastic, I had quite a bit of time to kill before the doors opened. And it just so happened that Elton had come out to the stage to warm up and do some sound checks.

No one was in the arena; the seats were empty. Elton was on stage, wearing a pink wind suit (wind suits were still kind of a thing then) (at least I think it was a wind suit) (maybe it was a warm-up suit) (whatever) and fluffy slippers, sitting at a gigantic piano. A few sound technicians were around, tweaking mics and speakers and running tests. But Elton didn't pay them much attention. He just played and sang—as free as ever, with talent that simply just cannot be described. His fingers danced on the keys, performing what can only be explained as music magic.

I wandered down to the front row of a section near the stage and took a seat—just me, sitting alone in a cavernous, brand new 15,000-seat arena, not 10 yards away from Rocket Man himself. He kept playing, and for all that mattered it was just for me (and the sound people, and the lighting people, and of course for his warm up … but this is my story, so indeed it was just for me). At one point, he looked at me and we made eye contact. In my head now, 17 years later, I remember him giving me a big smile … but honestly that could be imagination mixing with memory. Though he most certainly did look at me and we had a moment—very brief, but a moment—and a connection. Sir Elton Hercules John was giving me a private concert, and for a few minutes I just sat there in blissful wonderment, breathing it all in.

Eventually, my moment ended and Elton got up and went to his dressing room, likely to change out of his fluffy slippers and pink wind suit and into his sequined blazer and giant glasses for the big show. And so I went back to the vending booths, tweaked displays, and waited for the crowd.

We sold a lot of shirts that night, and from the concourse I thoroughly enjoyed the first major concert we held at the United Spirit Arena. From that point on, we played host to a number of acts, and I had the privilege of similar experiences with KISS, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, WWE, Jars of Clay, and others.

I understand that the Double T Shoppe at the United Spirit Arena ended up closing. At least, I think it did. I was back a few years after graduation to visit family in Lubbock and was shocked to see it wasn't there anymore. Perhaps that grand entrance spot could be used for something else? Perhaps it was rebranded? I really don't know. Because it was pre-social media, I missed a lot of news from my alma mater in the years after I left. So all I have are good memories—memories, perhaps mixed with a bit of time-passing-fantasy—like those of the early evening on February 8, 2000, when Elton John looked me in the eyes, smiled, and sang to me … just for me.

#TexasTech #UnitedSpiritAreana #MarshaSharp #BobbyKnight #LadyRaiders #RedRaiders #EltonJohn #RocketMan #AskUncleMarty

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Talk About It

I love talking on the radio.

I don't do radio ads often, but when I do I always get a thrill going to the studio, sitting in the soundproof booth, and letting it rip. And every so often I get the opportunity to be interviewed on the radio. Today was one of those opportunities.

The delightfully entertaining Lee Rayburn from Ithaca's own WHCU had me as a guest today on Morning Newswatch. He was curious about Collegetown, the neighborhood of Ithaca where my store, Uncle Marty's Shipping Office, is. You see, Collegetown has been under major redevelopment for two years now and it has dramatically affected vehicle traffic, pedestrian traffic, and consequently businesses … not the least of which my own.

Now I'm an optimist (generally, with certain moody exceptions). And I fully acknowledge that the rose-colored glasses that I wear can sometimes get on people's nerves. But truly I see hope and a very bright future with all of the construction surrounding my business. Of course it hurts now and has been an absolute bear to deal with—full of frustration, hair-tearing-out moments, and complete bewilderment at some of the things that we've seen occur—but through it all, the end result will indeed be fabulous!

So Lee and I talked about it. And I hope that our discussion will encourage more of the general public to visit our fine neighborhood and support our fine businesses during the redevelopment process that we're stuck in the middle of.

I'm very grateful for the opportunity to speak freely and openly, no matter what the topic. Because nothing gets done if nothing gets said. And there's always a way to address a situation in a proactive, positive, professional, and solution-based manner, which has been my approach with this construction process and an attitude I hope to continue with. As a result, and by being involved and outreaching, I've been able to make some amazing connections with major developers, landlords, media, and local city and university officials. It's been quite the silver lining!

We all have something to say. For some, it's sharing hope. For others, it's raising awareness. We have stories to tell, accusations to make, positions to defend, causes to rally for, jokes to jest, encouragement to give, love to extend, and new connections to foster.

A good friend of mine gave me very good advice recently. He's a designer and was critiquing some new logo ideas I was toying around with. He said, "In design, it's not what you can add, but what you can take away." And I think the same editing mindset is appropriate with our spoken/written platforms. But when it's appropriate, timely, and might—just might—bring positive change, then why not speak up?

Talk about it. It'll do you good.

#WHCU #Ithaca #Collegetown #UncleMartysOffice #AskUncleMarty


Also published on the AMBC blog on April 18, 2017.

The Skinny on Whole30

True story: I just lost 17 pounds in 30 days.

I first heard about Whole30 when my best friend did it for the first time. And I'll admit that if anyone else had described it to me, I would have thought it entirely too crunchy for my taste; I would have brushed it off as just another fad diet in a sea of wack-a-doo wackiness. But she is an extremely rational person, so I knew it must be legit.

Then my parents caught the Whole30 bug, did it, and loved it. And then more and more friends were posting about it and testifying to their newfound energy and outlook on food. So I, a novice dieter, decide to hop on board to give it a shot.

Whole30 is an elimination diet. Some have described it as "paleo on steroids," but really it's quite different. The concept is simple: eliminate anything that could possibly trigger an allergy, cause you to be lethargic, slow you down, disrupt your gut, and generally make you not function at your best. So for 30 days you don't eat any dairy, processed sugar, soy (and all legumes), grains, artificial sweeteners, additives, etc. Instead, you eat lots of vegetables, fruit, good fats and oils, meat, and fish.

After 30 days, you introduce the different groups you eliminated one by one to see how you react. And you learn a lot! You learn that that carb overload really does make you feel sick. You learn that chewing that piece of sugar-free gum makes your tummy hurt a little. You learn to moderate and not crave the stuff so much that makes you feel icky.

I have a newfound love for dates and dried figs. Granted, I'm just a few days out of it, but I can truly say that I crave vegetables more and eat nuts out of pleasure instead of obligation. I've discovered the miracle of deliciousness that is cashew butter. I've learned that nearly all bacon, sausage, ham are cured with an enormous amount of sugar, but there are a few brands that you can buy that are just as delicious as their sugar-laden contemporaries. And I no longer have a hounding desire to buy a box of donuts, sit in the dark with a glass of milk and my shame, and not come up for air until they're all gone.

One cornerstone of Whole30 is that you weigh yourself and take before photos on Day 1. Then you put the scale away. On Day 30, you bring it back out and weight yourself again and take after photos. You do this because the focus of the diet is not to lose weight, but rather simply to feel better. But many folks do lose weight in the process, and much to my surprise I dropped a much-needed 17 pounds! But by not weighing myself every day, I focused on how I felt. And that was so healthy!

Whole30 isn't for everyone. But if you're looking for a change, to feel better, and to become more aware of what foods do you well and what foods don't do you well, then check it out. Visit and read up on it. Then why not give it a shot!? After all, what do you have to lose?

#Whole30 #IFeelGreat #AskUncleMarty