This article was originally published on February 27th, 2014 and may reflect a different time in our business cycle at The Milton Schoolhouse.
Disclaimer: The views on this blog are solely my own observations written in a spirit of good natured humor and general love of this city I now call home.
Milton's newest small business- Happy Camper Grooming- is a full service pet grooming salon that opened in January. Doug and Leslie, having already established themselves in this area four years prior to relocating, brought with them a large and faithful client base. As we built out their room downstairs, we watched a red brick house on Milton road become the new home for another established grooming business.
One night as we feverishly worked to get Happy Camper's space ready for their first clients I remember asking if they were in any way concerned about the dog grooming facility down the road. Doug looked amused- "Noooo. There are plenty of dogs around here. More than we could possibly groom. The people who use us tend to fall in love with us and stick around- that's enough for us."
How lovely! I was so glad to hear the world of dog grooming wasn't as cuthroat and full of spiteful sabotage as the massage business. Our own Bobbi dealt with ridiculous backlash from her previous employer when she decided to venture out on her own- which caused an unnecessary amount of stress for a business centered around destressing.
Silly me. As it turns out, Happy Camper's calmly confident views on competition were to be an exception to the rule. Soon after the new grooming facility opened down the road, Happy Camper had a full day of dogs belong to a "new" client cancel on them. After a few other red flags, we traced the number of the person who had booked and canceled. All signs pointed to someone suspiciously involved with said grooming company previously alluded to in this blog. Not 100% positive, but somewhere around the same odds as the sun rising on Friday.
Doug seemed unsurprised. Shrugging, he told me it was common- and it's happened before. I suppose it's a bit of a common practice. "I look on the positive side," he said, "it's a day off."
I'm not sure what kind of a person you have to be to "book" appointments with another similar business and cancel them...so the other business looses income for an entire day. I mean, honestly, do you think that one day will actually make or break a business? What are you trying to accomplish?
My mother always says, "Never attribute to malice what may be ignorance." With that spirit, perhaps some folks really haven't discovered what competition is in Alton at this present time. Let me lean in and whisper something to you:
If you own a local business in Alton, your competition isn't any other local business. Your competition is the lack of small business as a whole in our community.
What the heck does that mean? That means the ratio of local business choices in our community to potential clients is so low that it doesn't matter (at this point) what type of small business you are in- you aren't competing against another business for clients. You're competing against your own branding to attract clients from a non-client base.
Let's look at the General Cycle of Business and Gentrification*:
Step One: Low property values/taxes inspire artists and hip small businesses to start up
Step Two: Small businesses create an area attractive to tourism, property values rise, the most trendy businesses leave as more "upper class" businesses are established (young edgy artists can't really afford to pay high rent- so they move to another low value area)
Step Three: Corporate Moves In (Starbucks, Chipotle, etc), property values max
Step Four: Area becomes less trendy. Tourism declines. Property values plateau
Step Five: Decline. People and Corporate move to the new trendy areas. Buildings left empty. Property value declines
Repeat to Step One.
*There's got to be a real name for this...I've mentioned this before in this blog here.
Okay. So we're at Step One. I love Step One. Step One is the most exciting step...and the most profitable if you're looking to begin a small business.
Alton is a glorious untapped market. As a business, your energies should be put toward converting clients from non-users (they aren't accustomed to having your service/business around) to faithful users (wondering how they ever lived with a stinky dog before you existed). It doesn't matter if your business is dog grooming, massage, comic books, or knitted topiaries- if you have a product/service and awesome branding, this town is your oyster! You have the hard task of educating, creating, and growing your market.... but after that your location should be busting with clients. The competition for anything here is far from saturated- you shouldn't be wasting your minutes calling to another business to play silly games. You should be calling your mother about those manners she forgot to mention to you in your early years.
Let's focus on a positive example of a type of business who has this figured out around here: The local CSAs and independent farmers. You don't see these folks flinging dirty looks and cucumbers at each other on Saturdays at 9th and Piasa. These independent farm owners- who grow very similar product and use similar outlets to sell these products- are working together to educate and grow the Alton market for local food as a whole. They've gotten together to talk about how to grow Alton Farmer's Market, promote residential chicken keeping, throw around ideas for beginning a small grocery to sell local food, partner with restaurants, etc. etc. etc. Because of this, they've been able to get people who never considered local food genuinely excited about this new concept and these businesses in their hometown. The Alton Farmer's Market just announced it was moving to a larger venue this year- indicating their collective work to grow a market for local food in Alton is succeeding.
How could this apply to another business? Well, no one is safe here so let's talk about Maeva's- the coffee shop we will be opening in June. How would I feel if someone else opened up a coffee shop in Godfrey, or East Alton, or even downtown Alton? Wouldn't I feel a little like I didn't want them in my sandbox? Get off my swing set! That's my slide!
No. I promise you I would not and absolutely will not when this happens.
And I hope whoever opens up another coffee shop around this area would feel the same way. Should we be throwing out advertisements poo-pooing the other businness' prices? Or write snarky comments about each other's scones on Facebook?
Or... just possibly...just maybe...we should get together and seek to promote our community's love of coffee as a whole? Maybe we could co-sponsor a coffee fest, or co-host classes, or just get together as coffee shop owners and talk about what we see in business as a whole.
Why the heck would anyone be so nice in business? Because there are only so many things you can control to make a business successful. If another coffee shop opened up, our locations would be wildly different (out of our control), our pricing would likely be comparable, our products (if they chose to be a true quality coffee shop) would likely be on the same level. It's much like the farmers in our region- there are only so many ways to grow so many vegetables in this climate and be profitable.
The only thing left in our control to distinguish the two shops would be atmosphere (which is naturally going to be different shop to shop), branding, and service. Honestly, Maeva's isn't going to have any business-to-business competition in Alton unless this town turns into Portland OR- where there's an independent coffee shop on every corner. This isn't because Maeva's is necessarily going to be "so much more fabulous" than any hypothetical future shop- but because:
- there are enough components to naturally make us and any other shop different (and thus attract different types of people)
- there are plenty of customers to go around
Here are two big things you can do to improve your business if you feel it's on uneasy ground in this area.
1) Plan a way to work with your competition (...if they are nice folks. If not, send them this blog so they might realize you aren't in competition with them). This could be dog groomers planning to co-sponsor an adoption event. Screen printing companies putting together a coalition celebrating their art and hosting holiday pop-up shops like Cherokee Street Print League. Or restaurants getting together for things like the Taste of Alton event.
2) Focus on making your business the best it can be. Whether you have competition or not, you should want your business to be awesome anyway. Don't look at similar businesses as a threat- look at them as motivation to improve your own. If you aren't really creative or you're afraid you can't quite see how to make your business shine, you can hire me or another marketing/design company to consult with you on how to strengthen your brand and reach this untapped market we've been talking about.
3) And, if you simply feel you must call another business to carry out nefarious plans, heck, use someone else's phone. And maybe a nom de plume.....like "Black Cobra" or "Nannette D'Avingnon" or "Steven Seagull".