By Rod Loges
In today’s “big box” retail world how do small business owners stand out and compete?
One way is by building their own community of champions and collaborators.
All around us are great examples of how small business owners have created their own community (or One Degree World, as we call it around here).
One of my favorite examples comes from a small cafe alongside the deceptively calm Upper Youghiogheny River.
On a recent early morning road trip, I pulled off the highway in Friendsville, Md., to explore the Water Street Cafe (found using Yelp.com – love that website). While there I struck up a conversation with the cafe owner, Chris.
I commented to Chris how peaceful and calm the river looked from his cafe. Chris laughed and said, “follow me.”
Chris led me to the “regulars” table which happened to be occupied by seven expert whitewater rafting guides! Next thing I know I am paddling down the river on a “River Guides Only” whitewater rafting trip.
All-in-all there were 13 river guides and, um, me. I can now speak from experience when I tell you that the Yough River isn’t so peaceful everywhere.
Not long after this, I was driving through Maryland again – this time with my two teenage daughters – and once again stopped in the Water Street Cafe. When I walked in Chris immediately smiled and said “Hey there, Rod!”
Being completely mortified that anyone would know their parent by name, my two girls immediately looked at me and shook their heads like only teenage daughters can do (ah, kids).
As we sat enjoying our early dinner a waiter walked out from the kitchen with a tray full of the most mouthwatering-gargantuan-sized pizza rolls we had ever seen – they were enormous and there were a TON of them.
“Wow, Chris,” I asked, “what on earth are those and who eats them all?”
Chris explained that his little Cafe is a popular stop for kayakers after they get off the river.
“When the dam is released upstream, the kayakers hop on for a great ride down the river,” Chris explained. “When I see the river level rising outside my cafe, I know kayakers will be here in 15 minutes.”
Sure enough, just a few minutes later the door to the cafe opened and within minutes the giant rolls were gobbled up.
Chris definitely knows his Most Valuable Customer segment – the adventurous river community (plus two – my daughters announced that we must return to Water Street Cafe anytime we travel through Maryland, as long as I don’t continue to embarrass them by talking to people that is!)
There are many local businesses that have done a great job in building their community. A few great examples:
Yarn Cloud, located in Occoquan, states on her website “We celebrate the fiber arts by teaching and building community.” Shop owner Robyn Becker helps Yarn Cloud stay true to their community by providing knitted hats to the homeless and knitted knockers for breast cancer survivors.
Owners Emil and Kim Wigode have done a great job building a community of local wine lovers around their business, The Bottle Stop Wine Bar. Their Winemaker Dinner, held once a month, is always sold out.
The whole Craft Brewery industry is also built around community. These great craft breweries should probably be renamed to “Community Breweries.” It is not just about the great beers they brew, it’s about the conversations and connections that are built around the shared community of interest. Forge Brew Works in Lorton is a great example of this community feeling, and there are many others.
How To Build Business Community
So how do you build your business’ community? While there is no “hard and fast” rule, these guides may help:
Be Laser Focused – do not try to be all things to all people, instead pick your ideal customer and build a community around that segment
Listen – find ways to listen to your ideal community, and make it easy for them to engage you (Facebook, Twitter, eNewsletter – whatever works best for you)
Create Learning Opportunities – providing local learning opportunities is a great way to engage your community. Open your local business up to a guest speaker on a topic important to your community is a great way to build a sense of belonging
Be Consistent – I should probably have put this one first… the Number One complaint when working with small businesses is inconsistency. Offer a good experience (regular hours, updated info online) and a good product (consistent quality) and your community will reward you by staying loyal.
Be a Giver – Find ways to support charities in ways that are unique to your business and you will be remembered (like Yarn Cloud and their knitted hats). Also look for ways you can reward your customer community for their loyalty. Breweries do this often with custom mugs for their most loyal customers, but there are many ways this can be done.
By being creative and unique, your business has a chance to really shine in whatever community you choose – and that is something no “big box” store can do.
So tell me, what are some other businesses that have built vibrant communities in our neighborhood? Oh, and I’m happy to meet you at a local “Community Brewery” to discuss this further. Don’t worry… I’ve got my own mug.