Being a business owner these days means you have to be adaptable. Trends and technology change quickly, and every time there’s a new online tool (blogging software, Twitter) or a new paradigm (social networking, web 2.0), entire business models can be conjured seemingly out of thin air, while others are relegated to the backwaters of Internet commerce.
How do you adapt to the new? Most of my clients feel a combination of excitement and overwhelm. The possibilities are incredible… but the act of just keeping up with what’s possible can feel like an unbearable and unfair burden.
The Myth of the Business that Never Changes
Even now, we can all think of a few businesses whose essence hasn’t changed in decades or even centuries. The London Times. Macy’s. Twinings Tea. This old paradigm, though terribly challenged by the current crisis, has the status of a legend.
For those of us in sole proprietorships or small businesses, the effort to create and build a brand sometimes results in the same kind of marriage to a business model. Wouldn’t it be great to create a “classic” brand? Yet this desire can have one potentially disastrous results for a business.
New Technology, Old Paradigm
I have one friend, James, who has been a visual artist for all of his working life. He believes in the traditional model of success: artist seeks reputable gallery representation; gallery handles all marketing and sales; artist achieves fame and fortune.
In this model for success, a web site is useful… but only as an adjunct to the traditional process of hauling a portfolio around for gallery owners to see, or sending out a box of slides. Internet tools can help publicize the work. But they don’t really change anything.
What if James used the web to turn his business upside down—and rather than courting traditional success, he used it to create a hierarchy of products (t-shirts, inexpensive prints, tickets to private showings and previews, special day-long studio art “classes” in the artist’s medium and style, all the way up to the sales full-scale works)—that would build a Thousand True Fans, as Kevin Kelly calls it—fans who provide a living income? (Find out more about this idea and many other new media business models in David Mathison’s Be the Media.)
The possibilities are endless for making a living doing art in a new way. But it’s risky. It’s scary. And it means the artist must be more of a marketer than before. Gone is the isolated studio, the ivory tower, the focus on “pure” art, unsullied by market considerations.
Ego and Habit
There’s fear of risk, financial ruin, loss… and then there’s the role of ego, and habit. My grandfather, for example, owned a grocery store in a small town in Minnesota. When he purchased the business in the 1920s, the store had no refrigeration, made no deliveries, stocked no fresh produce. He turned it into an up-to-date concern for its era, with refrigeration and phone-in ordering and delivery, that thrived even during the Depression, all the way through the 1960s and beyond. But then when the supermarket chains came to town, business dwindled until the store finally closed after my grandfather’s death in the 1980s.
During those decades, my grandfather turned down invitations to expand. He had found a working model, and he stuck to it. He could not imagine how to reinvent the store in a changing business landscape, nor did he want to. He loved interacting with customers, packing up groceries for home delivery, and keeping up with the life stories of the entire cast of characters he had come to know during so many years on Main Street. As long as those loyal old customers were still living, the store survived despite stiff competition.
Visiting my grandmother one winter after my grandfather’s death, I drove her to the supermarket. I dreaded the trip, knowing of my grandparents’ decades-long hatred of and boycott of any and all supermarkets. But once inside the store, my ancient half-blind grandmother careened from fruits to vegetables to the meat counter with the manic enthusiasm of a wild dervish. She loved the vast selection, the fresh array of colorful produce, the spaciousness, the freedom to choose.
“Ray and I never had any idea what we were up against,” she said in the car on the way home. “No idea whatsoever. We never even set foot inside a supermarket.”
I was floored. Their emotional investment in their own ways of doing things kept them locked into a mindset that kept the business from expanding, surviving, and supporting their kids as well as it had them.
Are You the Problem?
Chef Gordon Ramsay comes up against the same issue on his TV show “Kitchen Nightmares.” Ramsay offers a proven formula for restaurant success: good food that fills a local market niche, served quickly and attentively, in attractive surroundings. But often the failing restaurants that seek his help can’t make this turnaround. And the reason isn’t lack of desire. Usually, it’s the emotional baggage of the owner: an attachment to a menu, or dish, or style of cooking, that just isn’t cutting it in today’s market. Just like my grandfather’s attachment to his old-style grocery.
And yet sometimes, old is good. Sometimes, the tried and true really works. Sometimes, the stubborn attachment of a business owner to their own authenticity is the key to their success.
So how do you know? How do you choose when to change, how to change, what to change? I’d love to hear your thoughts.