Tag Archives: small business

Soda Blast to the Past: Rediscovering Purpose

I had wanted to share another post-fire update at work but there hadn’t been much to say in the past couple months. Seems like everything in the rebuilding process moves in slow motion. Or perhaps since I haven’t worked a 9-5 for someone else in over 25 years I have forgotten how things work in the real, non-entrepreneurial world.

Since the fire we’ve been reminded that many 9-5 folks mentally check out Thursday afternoon, completely clock out Friday at 5, physically clock back in Monday morning, but don’t actually get back in full swing until Tuesday. Endless meetings crowd the work week and slow progress so much I don’t know how anyone can take it!

Life is nothing like that for established entrepreneurs. We are rarely completely at work, able to handle personal things almost any time, and never completely off work, able to keep things moving with a quick text from two states away while on vacation. Our work weeks have flexibility so we don’t miss our kids’ events or family dinner but we work 24/7, even while we sleep, because we’re always on call. We keep an easy but never-ending pace. We stop when we finish the job, not when the whistle blows. I don’t know that it’s better or worse, harder or easier, but it’s certainly different because small business owners never clock out and always get paid last with whatever is left. Since we work on our own time every minute counts. Perhaps that explains why we are not very patient when others, especially those who get paid every week no matter what, don’t feel the same sense of urgency.

This past September, four months after the fire, I kinda lost it. I admit it. I even stopped blogging. All summer we saw no progress on the building for weeks at a time. One day of work, two weeks of nothing. Insurance investigators took six weeks to agree on cause but only actually worked three days. The other 39 days nothing happened. Nothing. The property owners never contacted us and it seemed as if nobody was doing anything to move forward. Our questions remained unanswered. We found ourselves not wanting to nag and basically just surrendering, going with the flow, losing the battle with developing a defeatist attitude. Then one day we had yet another meeting that accomplished nothing and I just flipped out.

Up until then I was holding it together surprisingly well, always very kind and understanding, so I feel sorry for those who were totally caught off guard with my make-this-happen-now-or-find-someone-who-can moment. Let me just say that I could never be a general contractor – ever. I could not be an insurance adjuster, an investigator, a city official, a government employee, and no way could I work a regular desk job. I thought managing employees and pleasing customers was challenging. Nah. Helping people is rewarding. But being at the mercy of others to make deadlines and get things done? Now that’s torture. I don’t know how people deal with it. The bureaucracy I have witnessed since the fire has assured me that it’s a good thing I’m self employed. I would not last a week on someone else’s clock. I’ve tried my best to stay kind and patient but we all have our breaking points.

My advice? Don’t ever confuse kindness with weakness, in yourself or others. And always remember the ones who write the checks make the rules.

SODABLASTSo I was watching a part of the cleaning process one day called soda blasting and I had an epiphany. The soda blasting was fascinating, actually. It’s a non-destructive, environmentally friendly process in which sodium bicarbonate is applied against a surface using compressed air. Much like sand blasting, it’s actually more effective for fire and smoke damage cleanup as it removes the soot and deodorizes the surface, also destroying the mold that generally forms after fires are extinguished, while not harming the environment with unnatural chemicals. But it makes a terrible mess. I wondered what inspired the invention of this cleaning process since everything starts with a problem needing a solution. I was captivated by how it took such a huge, messy, excavation process to expose the simple core surface beneath. I remembered that story of the little boy watching an artist sculpt a woman and him asking, “How did you know she was in there?” Suddenly, I found myself transported back in time to how we got here in the first place.

It started with a dream – Tim’s dream to make a living, somehow, working with animals. He had all this intelligence, business savvy, passion, and animal knowledge but needed someone to handle the human and retail elements, so he asked me. After I fell in love with his mission – to foster an affinity for animals and nature in children – I realized my people and retail skills would help, but help him do what, exactly? The world didn’t need yet another ordinary pet shop. What did it need? I didn’t know so I asked the community and the community responded by loving or hating what we were doing which, in turn, guided our actions. The mission never changed but we realized that we’d need to find a way to fill a void in people’s lives, a need that can be satisfied by returning to nature. We recognized we had to listen to what customers wanted to figure out how to give it to them. The customers were financing this mission, after all, so basically they were in charge. After we embraced that concept everything began to fall in place.

During my blast to the past I remembered one of my former employers, Gladys Bachmann, who would always tell me to “kill ‘em with kindness” during tense situations. We called her Glady. I actually used red, silk gladiolas in my wedding to symbolize her teaching. “Be kind,” Glady would say, “no matter how someone else acts. Rise above and be kind.” She and her husband owned a jewelry store and even when customers were snobby she would remind us that without customers writing the checks there were no businesses. Another thing she used to ask was, “Who’s robbing this train?” to lighten the mood anytime things were not going smoothly at work. My coworkers and I would then realize we had lost sight of who was in charge, or failed to put anyone in charge, and that was why we were spinning our wheels.

During this uneventful meeting, I noticed some sand on the concrete, remembered all my previous reflection, and with Glady’s voice in my head I walked myself through the steps.

Who is robbing this train (who’s in charge)? Customers.
What do they need? Tim to reopen his store.
How can he do that? By having me handle the people.

Right now “the people” are the ones in charge of the rebuild but, wait, who writes the checks?

Several years ago a very rude, arrogant sales executive (who had never been self employed or worked retail) was in our store trying to tell my staff what to do. We were his company’s oldest and best independent account yet he felt the need to badger and boss my employees. When I shut him down, explaining that my employees knew their jobs better than he could ever understand, he asked, “Do you realize who I am? Do you know who I work for?” His business card said he was the executive director of marketing for the European division of a pet food manufacturer.

“Yeah, I know who you work for,” I said, kindly. “Me. You work for me.” Oh, the look on his face. “I sell your product to customers and use their money to buy more of your product. I cash their checks to write your company a check then they cash my check to pay you. So I work for our customers and you? You work for me.” And then I politely showed him and his Armani suit the door. That was an interesting day.

So I kicked a little sand with my shoe and prepared to unleash. With renewed clarity I kindly reminded all parties involved exactly who writes that five digit rent check every month, who has been a tenant for 27 years, what it’s costing us every day we’re not back in that building, how the loss of Pet World is affecting this community, what the lost traffic of 1000 people a day is costing the shopping center, and how many other properties were available for rent in Lawrence who would love to sign our next 10 year, million dollar lease. This fire rocked our community and nearly destroyed Tim. He is better with business than me but I’ve been watching him negotiate for more than half my life so I knew how he would handle it if he were at his best. He needed me to call up my inner banshee and, boy, was she ready to surface. We are entrepreneurs whose lives revolve around reciprocity. This one way street had reached its end. Since then we’ve had get-on-board-or-get-out-of-the-way kind of days. And whaddaya know? Things actually started moving forward without weeks of inactive gaps in progress. Now we’re finally getting somewhere and the end is in sight.

In my next fire update I’ll explain the timeline for the final stages and announce the official date when we will reopen in our old location. In the meantime, I’ve got to remind myself every day to never confuse kindness with weakness, identify who is robbing the train, and always remember the person writing the checks makes the rules. It might get messy, but I think sometimes you simply gotta blast your way back down to your core and reflect on the past in order to navigate the future.

Staff Memo Regarding Ferguson

As small business owners, we’re sensitive to our roles in our community. We are involved in all the local public schools and nearly all of our employees are under 25, most under 22. In our very small pond, we are decent sized fish with quite an audience watching our every move. In light of recent events in Ferguson, we knew we’d need to address our employees. My wonderful staff members were feeling the weight of all the hate and our memo sparked much needed conversation. It was received with so much gratitude and support, I felt compelled to share our message publicly. In the spirit of transparency, this is basically the essence of how we handled the subject with our employees.

We’re all troubled by the state of affairs in Ferguson and what this unrest represents, but we must not lose our heads. Are you angry? Good. Injustice should trigger anger in us all. Frustrated? Good. Problems with complicated solutions – or maybe no solutions – are nothing but frustrating. How about sad? Because unnecessary loss is very sad. Loss of property and, more importantly, loss of life. And what about shame? Are people who share your heritage acting in a way that embarrasses you, leaving you feeling disconnected? That’s what I’m hearing from you. White, black, mixed — we’re feeling uncomfortable in our own skin. That’s okay.

These feelings are all appropriate for what is happening in our world right now. You might not know exactly what to do with these feelings but I assure you they are all appropriate. Just remember you can’t control what is happening but you can control your reaction and subsequent action, or inaction, as the case may be. All I am asking is that you please be very careful before you act.

In our personal experience it seems that many folks, especially bi-racial people, and close friends and family from the very poor, predominately black neighborhoods of our childhoods, are frustrated with the social media outpouring from the white youth and the privileged people of all races who can’t possibly understand. And I don’t just mean the racists on Twitter. People who have never experienced oppression are not helping by raising fists and acting like they get it; they don’t. They can’t. And they need to stop. A privileged, mixed, suburban male can’t simply put on his flat billed cap and think he understands the thug life. Listening to gangster rap while growing up wealthy and white doesn’t mean you understand ghetto life. A person born in the 90s can’t begin to comprehend growing up in the 60s. It just doesn’t work that way. Folks mean well but they just don’t get it. More good is accomplished by simply being supportive and acknowledging that they can’t possibly relate than insulting someone’s culture by acting like they can. They simply cannot. Instead of bandwagoning with one side or the other please consider sitting back and listening to what is truly needed and doing something to help or, if nothing else, clear the path for others who are helping. But don’t make things worse.

Also, please remember that protestors are exercising their rights AS THEY SHOULD BE. We’ve fought and continue to fight so protestors can peacefully assemble and be heard. They are angry AS THEY SHOULD BE. Let them disrupt the status quo. That’s the purpose of protest – to call attention to injustice. Their message needs to be heard so let them say it. Remember, the vandals and looters you see do not represent the protestors, the black community, nor any other community. The thieves you see consist of many races and are not part of the black culture; they are opportunistic posers hiding being people with legitimate reason for their anger. Furthermore, the actions of some police officers do not represent the actions of all police officers. In fact, men who rape women don’t represent all men. Pet store employees who neglect and abuse animals don’t represent all pet store employees. All bully breeds are not dangerous. Are you with me? Blanket judgment is the very essence of racism and it’s just flat wrong. Don’t succumb to blanket judgment calls. Look beyond the obvious. Cops are not the problem. Blacks are not the problem. The fact that a dysfunctional system allows bad cops to make blanket assumptions about black men which leads to unnecessary death is the problem we’re talking about. Don’t fall into the blanket assumption trap or make this something it’s not. When you see #BlackLivesMatter it means what it says because they do. Black lives do matter. It doesn’t mean other lives don’t. If I say #cancersucks it doesn’t mean diabetes doesn’t.

My point is this: All groups have an inherent culture that is to be embraced and accepted as equal, not same. We’re all different and that is a good thing. And all groups have what I call posers who don’t deserve to be in the group. Please don’t condone the judgment of all based on the actions of a relative few. Don’t abandon your heritage in frustration and feel compelled to “flip to the other side” — whatever that means — whatever your heritage. Don’t get sucked down into mediocrity and shallow judgment. Rise above the easy, lazy, bandwagoning path and think for yourselves. Dig deep. Deeper. Remember it’s never about WHO is right, it’s about WHAT is right. Systematic racism and oppression is a problem in every culture that must be addressed. Our culture is no exception.

One thing I can promise you is that fighting hate and unjustified violence with hate and unjustified violence won’t solve anything. Please do not support or perpetuate hate and injustice. Be part of the solution or, if you can’t make things better, be silently supportive of those who can.

 

Reciprocity in the Workplace

My first post in the “Owners Blog” section of www.PetWorldLawrence.com.

ReciprocityRecently we’ve been discussing how the link between dedication, loyalty, and success is genuinely reciprocal in thriving companies. The harder employees work, the more employers invest in them, and the more they improve. The better employees get, the happier they become, & the more success they achieve. And when employees succeed, companies succeed, and then find themselves in a position to invest even more back into employees.

And so it goes. Reciprocity at its core.

But it doesn’t stop there. Reciprocity includes customers. In fact, it can’t work without customers. Because successful companies don’t worry about the short-sighted quick sale and take time to improve customers’ lives long term, customers support them. Our company focuses on improving our customers’ lives by improving the lives of their children and their pets. To support our mission, our customers keep their business local. That investment extends to our community outreach which makes a positive difference in Lawrence. This strong, Kansas, community supports us so we can then invest in our employees who then invest in our customers who are the very community that supports us. Everyone wins.
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Over the course of the last year, after realizing Tim and I were answering more questions than asking, we’ve had to consider that perhaps it’s time to accept our roles as mentors in the spirit of reciprocity. We’ve been asked to mass market our staff training program, sell our store, expand Pet World, franchise, hit the public speaking circuit, offer seminars…you name it. Tim coaches, I teach, we both manage, so that all makes sense. But here’s the thing. For us, it’s not about money or popularity or rapid, financial growth. It’s about responsible stewardship. “From he whom much is given, much is expected.” Luke 12:48. Perhaps it’s financially unsound to offer up a quarter century of free entrepreneurial wisdom to anyone with an internet connection. But frankly, we’re not too concerned about the risk. Since 1988 we’ve been trying to do what is right regardless of cost and this philosophy hasn’t failed us yet. I don’t think it will now.

We’ve learned that life isn’t just about money and getting ahead at all cost. It’s about growth, hard work, and active participation. It’s about being part of a team, something bigger than yourself. I’m not sure our society is consistently reinforcing the importance of good work ethic & I’m as concerned as the next guy about young adults subscribing to the fallacy that life is fair & easy. A false sense of entitlement concerns me as much as it concerns you. Bad influence surrounds us. Our young employees see some of their friends under achieving, taking shortcuts to get ahead, trading principles & life skills for short sighted advancement. Plenty of businesses lack ethics and fail to understand the essence and importance of hard work and reciprocity. Shortcuts and scams seem to be the norm now. I get all that. Which is why we’ve decided to choose the high road of reciprocity and even add mentorship into the mix. Our hope is for young people to shape their life paths with big picture focus, understanding that life is as much about the process as it is the end goal. If we help you win, you help someone else win, and they help more people win, and in the end, all who participated win.

Reciprocity is about the trust, loyalty, hard work, & dedication of each person involved. It’s about truly caring enough to improve each other’s lives and our existence as a unit. Improve the parts; improve the whole. That’s how life works. It’s reciprocal. So maybe to some people our blog seems like us giving away the farm. That’s okay. We know reading our free advice and actually implementing our philosophies are two very different things. As for us, we’re just being responsible stewards. We will continue to grow and foster our reciprocal relationships for as long as our customers will let us and offer nothing but support in return. That’s been the Pet World way since day one. And we’re not about to change now.