Monday, May 30, 2011

What Century Are You In?

What century is your business in? A handful of years ago I was hired as a consultant by a holistic health clinic. They were having trouble maintaining staff and clients, the once prosperous business had dwindled down to surviving hand to mouth, and now that the owners were getting older they wanted to build a reliable savings so they could schedule retirement. They realized things needed to change, so they asked me to help.

I went about my initial investigation by interviewing staff, observing the business practices and speaking with long-time clients. One client surprised me by saying she was merely staying with the business out of loyalty. She also told me she doubted I would make much headway in improving things, that eventually I would “hit a wall” because the owners were “very set in their ways.”

My findings fully confirmed her assessment. The owners, now in their golden years, had set up their business forty years before, and had never bothered to update. Their original business model was communal, meaning that there essentially was no staff beyond themselves. In fact, often clients would do administrative tasks to offset the cost of care. This mode of operation left too much room for error and at best ambiguous record keeping. And whereas in the “Age of Aquarius” the business practices may have been passable, over the years the community around the clinic had altered. The hippies of yore had been replaced by gentrified Urbanites who were not interested in a business that didn't even accept credit cards.

The meager staff was an impressive team: young, overly-qualified, and eager to make a difference, they were true gems that most businesses would cling to at all costs. But in this case they were under appreciated and finding it difficult to be productive in such a nebulous environment. Much of the way they were being treated, while perhaps acceptable in the past was borderline illegal under today's labor laws and employment guidelines.

I presented my findings as delicately as possible to the owners. We needed marketing-any marketing. We needed to update the website, hook into social media, tap the shoulders of the press, create events to get the public in the door to learn more about the clinic's offerings. The employees needed set boundaries and good communication (for a while I came in weekly to meet with them with amazingly positive results). The office desperately needed to be updated and reorganized. And for goodness sake, the business absolutely had to accept credit cards!

It started out good. The owners were receptive to the changes and reported they appreciated the immediate improvements. Unfortunately the more we progressed, the less the business resembled what they were accustomed to and that was scary for them. In the end I faced push back. A discouraged staff member left. One of the owners called me. I was told they would be in touch. When the other staff members learned I'd been let go they quit.

I'm not sure why many businesses get stuck in the age of when they “came of age”. It's like that episode of Seinfeld, when Elaine's friend refuses to get her hair styled any differently than the late 1960's poof she grew up with. Business owners develop a model, find that it works, at least at the start, and then give up attempting to improve or develop with the times. I can't tell you how often I'll pass a shop and upon peering into the window, find a bygone era gazing back at me, both in the layout and the merchandise. It later doesn't surprise me when I later find out that the business was established, say, in 1995.

Artists have a tendency if they're not careful to do this as well. How often have you gone to an arts festival and thought to yourself, “Wow, that person came of age in the seventies.” and voila, a person emerges from the booth who is exactly of the age you expected them to be.

This is not good. While it is in your best interest to maintain your signature, remain true to your brand, not keeping up with the times will kill a business. Yes, you may have developed a solid client base of peers who can appreciate your outmoded inventory and business practices, because they reminisce about the same yesterday you have-intentionally or no-sentimentalized, but eventually they will be too old to invest in what you are doing. In fact eventually they will die. And yes, you will die too, but if you want a business that's thriving, that when it comes time to retire, someone will want to take off your hands (for hopefully a lot of money so you can retire in style) you must ensure that business is not only vital, it's vibrant.

This is something I keep constantly in mind, not just as a business consultant, but as an artist as well. I came of age in the eighties, a decade I am very sentimental about, though I think every one is particular toward the decade they went from childhood to young adult. I try to be objective about my art: does it appeal to a wide audience? Would someone have to be in my age range to appreciate it? I have to say, judging from my client base, so far so good, but I always remain vigilant.

So what can one do to stay current and remain relevant to the world? Here are some tips:

Research new business practices, trends (and when I say trends I mean ALL trends: music, fashion, technology, commercial, the list goes on and on). Exploration should never end. In addition to reading, doing online searches, and continuing education, check out other businesses similar to yours. What are they doing? What is working? What isn't? Get out there to attend anything and everything: concerts, art receptions, fashion shows, book readings. No matter what the medium I promise you will discover a fresh pattern and become inspired. I had a business owner who refused to tap into the free and absolutely (depending on what your business is) necessary world of social media, which is certainly nothing new but has been such a tremendous part of life for so long it's obscene not to be immersed in the social layer. Creating and maintaining a buzz around her business would have been effective and a snap. Her excuse? She didn't understand how social media works. I'll say it again, do your research. When you find you no longer want to, it's time to quit.

Perhaps you don't have the funds or the need to hire new staff members, but if you can, whenever you can, invite younger people to get involved with your business. Bring them on to assist with administrative tasks, or sales. Or hire them as consultants for marketing, business guidance. As often as possible find ways to get the youth perspective on your business. Ask for their assessment. Ask what they would do to improve things, reach a wider audience. I once worked for a jeweler who had clearly come of age in the sixties. His work had peaked in the late eighties. I sent a friend of mine, a woman who was in her twenties at the time, to find his booth at an art show. She called to say she had found him simply based on my vague description of his jewelry. Her assessment, “It looks like he made it all in 1988.”

No matter what your age, as long as you have passion, you're young. If you are excited about what you are doing, others will follow suit. Business, no matter what it is, is about interpersonal interactions. People are paying for an experience. The opportunity for a pleasant, memorable experience is guaranteed when working with someone who truly loves and believes in what they do. This is not to say every moment in your business is bliss, but if you find yourself longing for retirement, wanting to throw in the towel and walk away, it is well past time to reassess what you are doing with your life. People are savvy and they know when someone is simply going through the motions, regardless of how polite you are while doing so. Business will suffer, if not crumble completely if you are not truly invested in what you do. If your heart isn't into it, find something new to do.

I hope this has been helpful. I am just one voice of many out there. Find the people who can guide you and the ways in which you can expand your business comprehension. Believe me, it will pay off.