Have you ever dreamed of ditching the corporate world in order to open a small business in a rural town? Can big city marketing experience translate to a small town coffee shop? Lets look at someone that did it.
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Over the 4th of July weekend, I escaped the hustle and bustle of Manhattan to relax a few hours away in a small town in upstate New York. It was a big day for a college friend of mine, who was marking her full exit from the corporate world with the opening of a little coffee shop cafe on Main Street, USA.
She has actually made a pretty linear progression in her marketing career, one that many people might admire and aspire to.
-> After getting her undergraduate degree, she began as a marketing manager at a small company in Connecticut.
-> After two years, she moved to another small company, as a senior marketing manager in New York City.
-> From there, her experience landed her a Director level position at one of the most well-known publishing companies in the world.
-> But after 4 years, she was laid off, just as she was finishing up her MBA.
So while she was armed with a lot of great experience and ready to put her education to use, she was without a job, a situation thousands of people probably find themselves in right now. I can speak from experience, having been laid off twice in my career, that finding yourself in this position can be scary.
However, what people don’t realize is that this is a tremendous opportunity in life. Think about it… when you are focused on your current job, there is rarely a driving force that MAKES you re-evaluate your career path. Sometimes you might hate your boss, dread your co-workers, and work way too many hours. But it takes a huge amount of momentum to actively remove yourself from that situation, even if you know it is the right thing to do.
With a layoff, you’re now forced to sink or swim. Fortunately, my friend had been working on a business plan as a project for her MBA. She figured, what better way to find out if it worked, so she started her own consulting business.
One of the smart things she did while growing her business, was to teach marketing classes as an adjunct professor at the college where she just received her masters. Sure the pay wasn’t spectacular, and she often expended much more time and effort than it returned, but it accomplished three major goals.
I’ll call them the 3 C’s.
1. Cutting edge
Because she needed to come up with new topics every week for class, it forced her to keep her skill set current. Being a professor kept her on the cutting edge of the latest marketing trends.
As a new small business owner, clients look very closely at your website and your qualifications before committing their funds. Having an affiliation with a major New York university gave clients added assurance that they were dealing with a pro.
As an independent consultant working out of your home, it’s easy to stay in your pajamas all day and do everything via the web and phone – just because you can. But by immersing herself in a professional, educational community, she developed dozens of contacts that lead directly to business for her company.
The strategy worked, and her business thrived for 6 years. So much so that she was able to take advantage of the entrepreneurial lifestyle, traveling often and buying a vacation home in upstate New York to get away on the weekends.
But as 2008 progressed, two factors simultaneously came into play.
1. As the digital economy grew and the US economy tanked, the need for her skills in the magazine publishing world continued to shrink.
2. She found herself not just going to the country house on the weekends, but working from there almost exclusively, only returning to the city 1 or 2 days a week to teach her class and meet with clients.
Once again, success in your career can hinge on not only recognizing trends, but acting on them. One day as she was contemplating business ideas for the next phase of her career during her 45 minute ride to the closest gym, she realized… “I’m driving 45 minutes to the closest gym!”
Soon after, the ideas started rolling and evolved into a formal plan to open up a shop on the main street downtown, starting out as a coffee shop and cafÃ© serving light sandwiches and smoothies, with enough room to eventually open a fitness studio.
While driving along the rolling mountain hills on a beautiful sunny day, that led to a discussion with my friends on the challenges of running a coffee shop in Manhattan vs. a charming country town.
In New York, the main challenge is overcoming the dream-crushing rent each month. With the right location, foot traffic is not a problem. The millions of type-A residents pounding the city streets at all hours in search of caffeine make sure of that. Most buyers don’t really care who serves them a cup of Joe, as longs as it’s half decent, not overly priced, and probably most important, served quickly, correctly, and efficiently.
If you tick off a customer, they’re gone. I literally have a 24 hour sandwich/deli place next door to me. I look out my window and can see the employees on break. I gave them three chances when I first moved in, but the food was just terrible. So now I get my coffee and sandwiches at the next place down the block. I’m guessing it’s a 25 second walk. Ah, I love New York.
But in rural America, the challenges are different. My friend isn’t concerned with a landlord calling each month demanding the rent payment. Far from it, she bought the entire building, with a separate apartment behind it to boot.
And she doesn’t have to worry much about competition. Sure, you can get coffee at one of the two other restaurants in the entire town, but it’s not like there’s a Starbucks across the street.
Her biggest challenge is probably going to be that there are only a few thousand residents in town, and those numbers will fall dramatically in the winter. I’m guessing no amount of marketing is really going to SWAY users… they’re probably coffee drinkers or they’re not. And awareness isn’t a problem… did I mention there’s only one main street?
It’s going to be the little things that count, and from what I can tell, she’s already doing those right
1. As we were talking on the sidewalk outside, an older woman walked by and congratulated her on the grand opening. My friend replied, “Well thank you very much, Helen, thanks for stopping in.” The woman stopped in her tracks and said, “You remembered my name!” It’s the little things like that win a customer for life. Maybe that was a skill set she honed from remembering student’s names while teaching.
2. My friends and I day-tripped to another small town about 20 minutes away, and struck up a conversation with a small business owner there. We were talking about leaving the city for good, buying property, and starting a business. I mentioned off hand that my friend just opened her business, and he knew her by name!
So while getting new customers within her town might be a challenge, attracting people from neighboring towns could be a great strategy. When my friend sent me to the next town, she recommended where to shop and where to eat, and likewise her connection can refer people to her town, and where to get the best little cup of coffee while they’re there. Sounds like a tactic picked up during a big city networking meeting.
I guess it goes to show, the marketing skills you pick up in life can work just about anywhere.