In the past few months, I’ve been giving out a lot of advice to fledgling small business owners, whether it’s via Facebook or Twitter, through some of the penpal relationships I’ve developed with aspiring bakers & entrepreneurs all over the world (G’day Australia!), or even phone calls with friends who have known me since before we were potty trained (I’m lucky in that I have surprisingly many of those).
Though I’ve been in small businesses for 10 years, I don’t consider myself an “expert” on it - I’m honestly making it up as I go along. That’s really the best blanket advice I can give- if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that “rules” are constantly changing, and you need to be as flexible as possible in order to change with them. It sometimes happens in a matter of hours. I learned that the hard way when we lost everything in the stock market crash of ‘08, and it took us six months to stop hoping for the best and radically redesign our game plan. If you didn’t know, Robicelli’s didn’t start off with cupcakes or actually any baking whatsoever- but that’s a different story for a different day- or for the book I’m supposed to be working on in my free time (HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Oh man I have no life.)
Point is as I type at 2am in sleep deprived delirium- people think I know what the hell I’m talking about. And being as I’m completely overwhelmed with projects and emails right now from my normal business that I can’t keep up with all the people who are writing me for business advice on a daily basis, I thought an occasional blog post was the way to go. Because I can’t write about my pants forever, folks!
Or CAN I?!?!?!
One thing that comes up in almost all my correspondence is people remarking how hard it is to be “on” all the time- always having a smile on your face and sunshine pouring out of you, even when you’re having the worst day ever. And yes, that is 100%, without a doubt the hardest part of the job. I tried doing it for a long, long time, and it came off as totally disingenuous and made me miserable.
I am not Miss Mary Sunshine. I am certainly not perfect. I am in fact probably the farthest thing from perfect that has ever existed. But it wasn’t until I stopped trying to pretend I was that we actually started getting successful.
On Sunday, I had a “bad day”. Our best friend/godfather of our children was getting married down in Disney World, and we couldn’t go (no lives, remember!). I hadn’t seen my kids since Thursday. And do you remember back at New Year’s when I made the resolution that THIS was the year Matt and I finally ate at WD-50 for our 5 year anniversary? That’s coming up this Friday, and once again, we’re going to be stuck working. We both kinda expected this because it happens every year, as when we planned our wedding we hadn’t thought of the whole “opening a bakery and having it be our busy season” thing yet. See what I mean about things constantly changing?
As we’re used to this sort of thing, we’ve adjusted our lifestyle to “keep the magic alive”, even though we have ridiculous schedules, a business we’re growing together, and two kids who like sleeping smack dab between both of us every night. One of the tricks we have are “text message dates”, where we pretty much play pretend over the phone, in a world where time and money is no issue. This was it:
Allison 11:23 AM: We can have a virtual anniversary! Let’s pretend we’re in a hotel room. A REALLY expensive one with nice sheets!
Matt 11:23: Where?
Allison 11:24: In Manhattan. Or Paris. Anywhere. Somewhere with big windows that’s really high up where we can see the city and there’s a good view with lots of lights. You know me and the shiny things.
Matt 11:55: Sry i had customers. So are we in Paris?
Allison 12:25: Hey, sorry. No, it doesn’t matter. Nice sheets, really fancy. We should order everything on the room service menu. We can watch a movie in bed.
Matt 12:31 PM: Got busy. Sorry. We can watch that movie about Aaron Neville.
Allison 1:24: Sorry, customers. Busy. What movie about Aaron Neville?
Matt 3:03: The one where he’s a baseball player. Where’s the extra bags?
Allison 3:47: Middle drawer. You have no idea who Aaron Neville is, do you.
Matt 4:33: We need to go to Jetro for more Mexican Coke this week.
Even theoretical Matt & Allison get screwed out of the romance!
Yes sad panda- that IS sad.
By the time Sunday rolled around, I didn’t want to go to work. Instead I dragged my ass out of bed, got dressed, headed to Madison, and tried to pretend that I really wanted to be there and not at Disney watching one of the best friends I’ve ever had get married. The day was perfect, I met lots of great people, and I was still miserable. And then I felt bad about myself because there were fans of the blog/Twitter who came down specifically to meet me, and I felt I let them down. Plus, it’s not any of YOUR faults I was having a lousy day! Maybe you were having a great day! I needed to be out there giving 110% to everyone who needed me to regardless of how I felt……but I couldn’t. Because despite the fact that I am a business owner and subject to your harsh criticism on Yelp, I am still an extremely human being. And Sunday McSucked.
A friend of mine had a bad day two days earlier and blogged about it, and I started looking through his tips on how to make it better so I could “fake the funk”, so to speak. I couldn’t borrow a dog and my cat thinks I’m a jerk, I couldn’t get out of my geographical situation, had no time to go shopping or for a pedicure, I don’t drink alcohol so I couldn’t get wasted, I don’t belong to a gym and can’t really punch stuff in my house because my kids will see me and then THEY will start punching everything, too. Meanwhile they can watch me pick up their toys ONE MILLION BILLION TIMES and yet somehow they can’t repeat that. Someone please explain to me how the hell that works.
The only thing I had, and I always have, is my Blackberry, which he said to turn off. And while he’s usually right on just about everything (he doesn’t pay me to say that), I had to disagree with him on that one. Blackberry needed to stay on.
The internet has changed everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, about the mom and pop business. I don’t just mean in the way how local stores turn to eBay to sell goods or how Foursquare has turned being a regular at a bar into a competitive sport. We know how the big box stores and the internet are slowly killing Main Street, but what’s incredibly cool is that the internet is also giving the best part of being a mom & pop a way to thrive, and rewarding them beyond measure for it.
We’re going to have another flashback now: to an old butcher shop in Brooklyn called “The Meating Place”. Don’t bother looking for it- it hasn’t existed in over 15 years, and the owners are long since deceased. I’d go in nearly every day with my mom, and Richie the butcher would always ask us about our day, about what I was studying in school or how many teeth I’d lost. He’d tell us about his life, some of it good, some of it bad, but it made us feel like we were part of his family and we were important to him. Once year I remember my mother telling him about something she’d seen in Reader’s Digest called a “Turducken”, and how she’d love to go to New Orleans one day to see it. The next morning our doorbell rang, and on our stoop there was a package with a perfect turducken in it, with a note that said “Those guys in New Orleans have nothing on me. I knew I could do it. -Richie”. You’ll never hear about a Stop and Shop doing THAT.
And yes, it was delicious.
Today we all get our meat from supermarkets where no one knows who you are. We save fifty cents a pound over those lousy old timey butcher shops that have all gone out of business! But no one asks me how I’m doing in school, or how’s that nice boy I’m dating, or did I find a nice wedding dress yet, or what we’re going to name the baby, or how our son’s first day of school went. And to me, that was one of the best part of living in a real community in Brooklyn.
Even if we closed all the box stores tomorrow and replaced them with the old mom and pops, they’d never fly. We’re all too busy rushing around, not slowing down for a minute to chat with our shopkeepers or even read their nametags. Everyone is disconnecting from everyone else, but yet everyone is checking their phones every thirty seconds to see if they have an email, or a Facebook notification, or if something happened on Twitter. They’re doing this because even though we’ve withdrawn from people, we are desperate for human interaction.
The witty banter, the knowing your customers, the learning about them and letting them know they’re the backbone of your business- it isn’t dead, but doesn’t happen in front of a meat case anymore. It happens on the phone.
If you’re a small business owner, you need to use social media not just to advertise sales or list your special of the day. You need to use it to make sure we do not lose the humanity of small business. Make jokes. Interact with people. “Chit chat”, as my grandmother used to say. Talk to people like you’re talking to an old friend, respond when you can, ask people about their day. When we opened our original, and long gone store, the dream was for us to have the great American mom and pop where we’d see the same faces day after day, watch our kids grow up in the store, and save a custom we were both so desperate to hold onto but saw slowly fading away. The physical aspect of that may be a thing of the past, but the custom? It’s still there- it’s just on Twitter.
And yes, this means you can have the occasional bad day. Note I said “occasional”. REALLY think before you tweet something, and wonder if you’ll regret saying it in a day or so. Never post anything negative about an employee, or about a customer. Picture what you’re saying coming out of someone else’s mouth, and think if you’d want to hear it. You’re not always going to be perfect at it, and you may lose a follower here or there. But as with everything you do, try to be mindful, not artificial.
I don’t want to read 2,000 tweets about someone who’s just angry at the world for no specific reason. But if they’re hilarious about doing it? I’ll want an old lady to go kick them in the shins just so they have more material. Someone gets stuck on hold with a company’s automated customer service loop for hours? I am SO HAPPY that doesn’t only happen to me! You’re missing your kid’s first piano recital because of your job? I can relate, and I’m comforted in knowing I’m not the only person out there struggling trying to balance a business and a family. It’s not about throwing a pity party- it’s about allowing yourself to breathe, and to let other people have the opportunity to relate to you.
BE HUMAN. Not only will it help you as a small business owner, but I think it will lead to a culture of better customers. It’s far too easy for people to get on the internet and judge people based on standards that are sometimes unattainable (or even unreasonable if they’re not familiar with the inner workings of your industry), provided they have the safety of total anonymity. But when people begin to connect again, when they remember that the people that serve them every day aren’t robots but living breathing human beings, when we are not all just talking but actually listening, then we’ll have something incredible.
And the most important part of all of this? It will keep you from jumping off a roof. It is completely effing impossible to be walking around with a smile on your face and a spring in your step all the time, especially when you’re answering the same questions over and over and over again and sometimes you feel that if one more person asks you that question you are seriously going to scream but you can’t so you just suck it up and deal with it and God sometimes I really miss drinking but sure this coffee will do and “Yes sir how may I be of service today?”
You know what question that is for me? “Which of these cupcakes is your favorite”? If you are an avid follower of this blog, you will know that at this point, after I’ve baked and frosted well over 200,000 of the damn things, I can no longer eat cupcakes. It’s really really sad, but true. There’s actually only one of our cupcakes that I can still stand to eat, that I’m absolutely, 100% head over heels crazy about, but it’s a seasonal flavor so during the rest of the year when someone asks me that question I lie. However, that seasonal flavor is happening right freaking now!!!! Told you guys I loved fall! GO GET THE BUTTERNUT SPICE BEFORE I EAT THEM ALL!
And if you’re not a small business owner and none of this applied to you- why not go shop in one today, smile a lot, give the cashier a compliment and say “Thank You”? Little things like that always make a persons day, and they have a way of becoming contagious. :)
Clockwise from front: CPB, Funky Monkey, Butternut Spice, Apple Peanut Butter
The CPB: Chocolate cake, peanut butter buttercream, roasted peanuts, ganache
Funky Monkey: Banana cake, peanut butter buttercream, banana chip, ganache
Butternut Spice: Butternut squash cake, vanilla buttercream, candied pumpkin seeds, Stony Brook butternut squash seed oil
Apple Peanut Butter: Apple cake, peanut butter buttercream, crushed homemade peanut brittle
Robicelli’s at Madison Square Eats: Corner of 25th and 5th
Robicelli’s at DeKalb Market: Corner of Flatbush & Willoughby, Downtown Brooklyn
Hom: 88th and Third Avenue, Bay Ridge
Blue Apron: Union Street off 7th Avenue, Park Slope
Court Street Grocers: Court Street off Luquer, Carroll Gardens
Tazza: Henry Street off Atlantic AND Clark off Henry, Brooklyn Heights
Radish: Bedford off North 8th, Williamsburg
Battery Place Market: 77 Battery Place, Battery Park City
Joe Columbia University: West 120th btwn Amsterdam and Broadway, Morningside Heights