When I was a kid, I cringed at the idea of embracing advantages I didn’t earn. In fact, I’d dismiss offers and opportunities immediately, without thought.
Finally, my dad explained, in a way I could accept, why it was dumb for me not to utilize such breaks. This particular conversation concerned a job arranged for me by his friend and client, a high-ranking bank official. I was in high school and had been working as a waitress (making gobs of money) from right about the day I turned sixteen. Bank teller seemed so much more respectable. Plus it sounded like a good resume feature for college applications or future employment.
Anyway, what he explained to me – something I just couldn’t process prior – was that I’d have to prove myself when I arrived to perform the job. There was no shame in letting others open doors if I proved to be an outstanding solution. It’s odd how that basement chat seemed to finally get it through my head that struggling on a level playing field wasn’t the only right move. For me at the time, though, it was a monster ethical dilemma.
As it turned out, I was a much better waitress than bank teller. Usually the last to leave, I was challenged with balancing my drawer. Plus, I got flustered when lines started backing up at the bank. Oddly, managing the mall crowds while flipping tables every ten or fifteen minutes seemed simple. Go figure.
Where do you draw the line with small business marketing?
I continue to struggle with this dilemma today. My dad’s early lesson enabled me to play the woman card with my business early and easily. I signed up as a NYS MWBE almost immediately. That didn’t do me much good because I wasn’t pursuing government contracts nor working with large corporations. Still, it wasn’t a bad flag to fly and didn’t cost me anything but time (which I seemed to have a lot of in the early days of my business launch).
What I also realized during this time, is acting like a woman made infiltrating the old boys network a lot easier. Some of my most lucrative early clients were older men with pride. They had made a name for themselves as community leaders with successful businesses that had spanned many decades. These guys were happier with solutions that stroked their egos than they were with effective marketing strategies.
At first, I struggled with the idea of implementing what they wanted. Even as a kid (in their eyes) I knew what they were asking would come with big issues. Once I learned it was OK to voice my concerns then accept and implement their decisions I found a good strategy.
In many cases, this meant moving forward with a solution that presented challenges. It was what they wanted, though. Being heard and lionized was more important to them than more prosperity. These guys had already made it. They were used to calling the shots. As I discovered, I was hired more to make their dreams come true than I was to help bolster sales of solvent companies. They were thrilled in the end and I was well paid.
My early partner was brilliant yet unrelenting in his arguments with clients regarding what he felt was right for them. Neither party was happy in the end. I learned a lot from watching that play out. His creative genius taught me tons about how to think through problems and suggest unorthodox solutions in live time. His abrasiveness served as a wonderful lesson in what not to do as a service provider.
Finding the right people to align with
In business, choosing the right associates, clients and vendors can be huge. If your gut is saying no, don’t do it. The people you associate with and the clients you choose to work with (this is a choice when you’re a small business owner) will make your life more meaningful, or miserable.
We’re all guilty of making wrong decisions. What counts is learning from them. I’ve made some doozey mistakes, but don’t beat myself up unless I do it twice.
It’s different for everyone, but I’m extremely wary of anyone seeking something for nothing. This includes vendors who demand full payment before they start work. There’s usually a reason they’ve been burnt by former clients (their argument for this policy). Potential alliance partners who start conversations by blaming others for their failures is another red flag. Clients who expect your answer to be ‘how high’ to jump while ‘the check’s in the mail’ are people I tend to gladly bid farewell. Life’s too short to endure the headaches, stress and time drains these type of people put on your day, week, month or year.
Interestingly, some of your greatest opportunities can come from unexpected – and possibly unfair – advantages others gift to you. The world is a very circular place. Treat all the people you encounter right (this includes suggesting better providers to prospects that aren’t a perfect fit for what you offer – you’d be amazed how many referrals these people send).
It doesn’t hurt to get politically connected. This is easy to do if you’re in a small city or any rural community. Usually all it requires is asking for a meeting, doing your homework and having an intelligent conversation (note – pitching doesn’t qualify as such – understanding their time is precious and respecting that with ideas on how you can help them achieve their aims does).
Join boards, become an officer in an organization, get to know community leaders and talk to your friends and family about opening doors. There’s no shame in having someone else funnel opportunities to you if you deliver beyond expectations.
Have you dismissed opportunities because you felt having it handed to you wasn’t fair? Why not, instead, accept the challenge and provide so much more than expected. What have you done lately to over-deliver so much the person who sent someone to you is puffed up with getting the credit?