“Where Everyone Knows Your Name”

During the mid ’90s I lived in Marin County, California; specifically Tiburon. Tiburon is small community of about 7,000 nestled around the Richardson and San Francisco Bays just north of San Francisco proper. It has a small town feel in an idyllic setting, yet has access to all the big city trimmings. The businesses I patronized were all locally owned, and mostly felt like family. While I rarely socialized with them outside of doing business, they all knew me, knew about me and knew my daughter Alex.

The florist down the street from our apartment became so used to my weekly “stock up the vases” trips that my phone number was on the bulletin board behind the cash register. “Call Clay as soon as the Parrot Tulips come in.” I must have been at the IGA grocery store every day. In fact I often just stopped in just to talk … even when I didn’t even need anything. If there was anything I wanted they didn’t carry, it took them only a couple of days – and then they did. I even brought in my knives to get sharpened by Tom the butcher. I could have done it myself. But if I did – I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to talk Minnesota Vikings football with Tom (another transplanted Minnesotan). In the days leading up to the draft I had the sharpest knives in Marin County.

And I remember the calendar I’d get from the Daily Grill detailing the special events they had coming for the month. They knew my favorite dish, wild boar. They’d even call (yes, on the phone) when they were getting a special shipment in … so I could make room on my schedule (which I always did).

They knew me. And because of it … I was a great customer.

Tiburon apartment view cropped

“Where Everyone Knows Your Name”

In the ’80s one of the top shows on television was the sitcom, “Cheers.” It made household names of Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Shelly Long and Kelsey Grammar. But maybe the biggest star of the show was it’s theme song, “Where Everyone Knows Your Name” by Gary Portnoy. Cheers wasn’t a bar, it was a 2nd home (or for some a 1st). And for a half an hour every week, it was a vicarious 2nd home for its audience. Everywhere I shopped in Tiburon was kind of like this. My community was really my home. And with working out of my home, the businesses I frequented were often at the center it.

Creating customer relationships like this are the holy grail of any merchant. But they can be for the customer as well. After all – “They know your name.” I’m a locavore through and through. And not just concerning food. I avoid national chains and even franchises like the plague. I took it to the next level in trip I made from my sister’s place in Nebraska to my home in Los Angeles I described in the previous post, Don’t fall for Starbuck. Even inanimate objects such  interstate highways weren’t immune from my disdain of national entities.

In all these cases, I was the one who extended my hand first in the relationship. I got to know them. And I made it known when I moved to town, or they opened shop, I was interested in doing business with them. All they had to do is not screw up too bad. And even then – there were always 2nd and 3rd chances to be given. As long as they cared about me and tried, they were always given the benefit of the doubt. After all, they were my friends. Needless to say this was before the days of Yelp and what it seems like the tenuous relationship between customer and merchant, one always on the verge of blowing up into a toxic internet feud (a feud no one wins).

That was twenty years ago though and pretty much all shopping options in Tiburon were locally owned. Even getting to a big box store in Marin County was a chore. Today this is not the case. Chains and big box stores are everywhere, and customers like me who shun them are few and far in between. The competitive landscape for locally owned businesses is much more treacherous. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

But what can change however is the metaphorical vehicle they have to navigate this landscape. What they need are the tools to create these friendships with customers that will turn occasional visitors into rabid evangelists like I was. They need to turn their business into a place “Where Everyone Knows Your Name.” And with social media and the plethora of communication mediums at their disposal, this can be easier than twenty years ago … but also harder due to the noise that has to be cut through.

Managing to not fall prey to the hubris of 21st century advertising involves making your message relevant. During the mid 2000s at the end of my tenure as a recruiter, I became intricately involved in database one-to-one marketing. Back in 2005, this meant being able to customize a direct mail piece to the specifics of recipient. Whether it was variable text or even imagery, marketing messages could be made much more relevant. And as a result, they became much more effective, often increasing response rates a ten fold.

Of course, these days just mentioning direct mail conjures up visions of marketing Luddites. With everything and everyone being turned into an app, a cookie, a like, a share or a favorite; print is an afterthought. Regardless of the medium though, it’s still the same. They’re all forms of communication, and the communication has to be relevant (both in terms of content and timing) to be effective. And the most powerful form of relevance is a response to an event.

By events I don’t mean just holidays or your birthday. A recent visit your local bookstore, could be considered an event. Or even test driving a new car you didn’t buy. They are events, and they’re all opportunities for a merchant and you, the patron, to have a constructive communication after the fact … a communication that builds a relationship.

These communications show you, the customer, that the merchant recognizes you were there. It shows that you are an individual – not just another number in their standardized mailing list … or not just another ‘like.’ It’s a communication that builds a synaptic relationship, a memory. And these memories are the golden opportunities a business has to solidify a customer relationship. 

A local business could notify you when you hadn’t been around in while. And in trying to get you back, they could make you special offer. Or imagine if you were kept abreast when they received a good deal on something that you had a history of purchasing (like me and the wild boar). Or even better yet imagine your local ‘hangout’ considered you a VIP and had special events and discounts exclusively for you and your other fellow VIPs.

 The options for post-event communications and ‘making you feel special’ are endless. It just needs to be in the mind set of the merchant. They have to want to take their relationship with you to one that’s not the ‘same as usual’ … but rather one aimed at turning you into an evangelist. Imagine the following examples being part of the rapport you and your local business engaged in. And these are just a few of the plethora limited only by your imagination:

  • “WOW, you must have been hungry” (Follow-up after large purchase): Big spenders like to be loved. Customers who spend over a certain amount of money in one sitting are sent out a thank you note with an offer to buy more.
  • “Haven’t seen you in a while” (Customer re-activation): It’s hard enough to get you as a customer, so the last thing they want to do is let you fade away.  Imagine being  automatically contacted by merchant a customer who hasn’t patronized you lately (within a pre-determined time frame) with a re-activating “come back in” offer.
  • “We got a great deal” (Bulk buy pass along): The key to business success is finding good deals and turning them over quickly.  Enable your company to jump on these deals by using “We got a great deal” to notify customers who can take advantage of your good fortune with  “pass along” savings.
  • “Join  us  on our VIP night” (VIP Club program): Imagine being VIP at your favorite watering hole.  “Join us on our VIP night” lets you create exactly that for your customers. You can create a special VIP night or event exclusive only to your top patrons.
  • “We want your suggestion” (Virtual suggestion box): Being in the middle of the trees often prevents you from seeing the entire forest – a forest only your customers may be able to see. “We want your Suggestions” provides your business with an online virtual suggestion box for your customers. Making them feel part of your business – will only strengthen your bond.

Now let’s take the relationship one step further. Imagine if the focus wasn’t just to get you to ‘buy more stuff,’ but to enlist your assistance in the building of your community. What if they asked you to help … to rise above just being a customer, and become a community collaborator.

Whether companies believe it or not, their customers are interested in a lot more than just their products and whatever sales they’re blasting over the airwaves. The more a company can transcend this attitude, the stronger the relationship they will be able to build with their customer base. The more points of substantive connection that are made … the stronger the relationship.

A merchant’s goal should be to expand the breadth of commonalities it shares with its customers … reaching past the doors of its store to the community it co-inhabits.

In previous posts I’ve elaborated on the Middle Ring phenomenon as the basis for building community through neighborhood connections. At the physical center of the Middle Ring is the Front Porch. A Front Porch is the metaphorical, or sometimes literal, meeting place where neighbors gather and discuss the issues of their community. Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee house you get your morning the expresso from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone hangs out to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens on the the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is.

Why can’t your community’s local businesses be your Front Porch? Why can’t your small business be where community volunteer and wellbeing efforts are planned and executed? Why can’t it be the nexus of how your community becomes better.

Just imagine efforts like these that could grow from local business turned Front Porch in your neighborhood:

  • “Pretty Picture on the Wall” Imagine if your community’s unknown artists suddenly had a had a venue for their work. And what if it was a venue, say a local restaurant, could generate income for them.  This initiative could connect a community’s artists, whether they be a talented youngster or a homeless person living on the streets – with a merchant that has wall space to fill. These ad hoc galleries give exposure, generates artist revenue and provide the merchant a source of local art to show off in their establishment.
  • “I’m not Alone Anymore” Being cut off from society is a killer for the elderly and shut-ins, literally. The less fortunate often have no family or friends around to make sure their basic needs are taken care of. They don’t have anyone to make sure they eat properly or take them to the doctor or get their medications. And that’s not even saying anything about mental support. Their likely future involves depression … or even premature death at home or worse yet, in an “old folks home.” Imagine if your community’s local businesses could step in by organizing their employees and customers to be the connectivity to the community that these people once had by not only helping with their physical needs but also providing emotional support. Even if just means a weekly visit for a cup of coffee … these people will not be forgotten for long.
  • “Help Me … I’m Dirty” Do ever you walk past that vacant lot and wonder what could be … what could be if someone did something. If someone just cleaned it up, that would be a start. But then, who knows what we could make it. And maybe if this vacant lot became something – something beautiful, then maybe it would catch on. Just like a team is only as strong as its weakest link, your community’s physical viability is only as strong as it’s most dilapidated property or park. And the momentum works in both ways, letting it go … revitalizing it. And what if instead of battling city hall to act, your community’s local businesses stepped in a provided the conduit for these actions through its employees and customers.
  • “Making the Transition” We feel that once high school is over, our children will be ready to tackle their futures on their own. If we don’t send them out into a world with unprecedented unemployment, then it’s off to college to accumulate tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Very seldom is high school set up to provide needed transitional advice. Imagine if it was your community’s local businesses who provided this ‘hand up’ by enlisted its itself or even its customers on-the-job training experiences or apprenticeships along with career guidance. These experiences will give recent graduates or even current high school students the opportunity to see the “ins and outs” of a profession before they jump in with both feet. And who knows, it may even get the your community’s ‘best and brightest’ to stay in town, rather than pack up and venture to point far away … too far to be of any future benefit for your city.

Graduation advice

These examples of a “Where Everyone Knows Your Name” philosophy of doing business isn’t ‘friending’ a brand on Facebook. It’s not ‘checking in’ on Foursquare. It’s creating a genuine human relationship between a customer and a merchant, relationships that go much deeper than just “buying stuff.” This is synergy where you are helping each other – and building your community together. This is taking ’cause marketing’ to a different level. The traditional customer/merchant exchange of ‘money for goods’ is not only transcended … it’s been relegated to a by-product, an assumed afterthought.

What if your life was filled with these type of relationships, relationships that complimented those of your Middle Ring neighbors. Imagine if your life was an ecosystem where every interaction you have could enhance your life and not just take up time. Wouldn’t you want to live like this … where the line between customers and providers is blurred – where your goals are all the same. Isn’t it time to consider yourself a community collaborator – creating a world that works everyone.

You would be creating a community wherever you went, “They would know your name.”

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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“Buy Local” … or maybe not!

“Every time I step out on stage, I know the people in the audience work hard to afford a ticket to one of my shows … so I have to prepare, work as hard as I can and do my best to make sure they get their money’s worth” ~ Alicia Moore (aka P!NK)

The chorus of “Buy Local” has become the new “Buy American.” This is especially the case with all the corporate shenanigans going on. The executives of Monsanto, Wells Fargo and B of A should be in jail. Wal-Mart is doing its best to decimate local economies, forcing themselves into communities by all nefarious means possible. And twenty-nine hours a week is the new full-time, since it falls under the federally mandated health insurance requirements.

The only way us ‘common folk’ can fight back is to buy local. And it makes sense. Only 15% of the revenue from a big box store like Wal-Mart or Target finds its way into the local economy – while the rest goes to national or international suppliers, stockholders and C-level management to points unknown. Compare that to 54+% that stays in town with a locally owned store. And these statistics are even more dramatic in the restaurant industry where 79% of local restaurant revenue stays local, compared to only 30% from the national chains.Hard to argue with those numbers. You buy locally and you help your neighbors and probably yourself as well. You don’t … you won’t.

Red Lodge main Street

“I’ll take the first step … but please help me out!” 

While buying locally may cost a few more cents on the dollar, I would hope still most us would be willing to help out our community. And by patronizing local business, in theory you should get better service. After all, your neighbors know you or at least should feel a ‘kinship’ with you.

Technically local businesses should have an unfair advantage. In addition to their knowledge of their customers, they can adjust to local market conditions. In the time it takes for a big box store to even get market intelligence – their local competition is out the gate with a new set of products and a promotion to match. Combine that with their superior customer service – any premium put on big box price should be discounted.

In theory, this should be the case. But such is not necessarily the way it is.

Recently, I’ve been helping out my parents in Montana. As with most people in their 70’s and 80’s, health-care is a constant issue. And central to elderly health-care is prescription drugs and their relationship with their pharmacy. Such is the case with my parents and their primary pharmacy – which is locally owned.

My parents have been very good customer of (a pharmacy that will remain nameless) for twenty plus years. You would think that sort of relationship would warrant at the very least, good service. Rather than go into copious detail, lets just say … the help is rude, seldom is a prescription sent out when promised, and they charge extra just to put something in the mail. And don’t you dare bring up the idea of a less expensive alternative drug. Who am I to say anything! I don’t have the letters after my name.

Yet this business will be the first to complain about the invasion of Walgreens and CVS.

“We can’t compete because of the bulk buying advantage the giants have. We can’t compete against their advertising budgets.”

No mention is made of the fact that (a pharmacy that will remain nameless) has been a member of the Billings community for decades, serving generations of customers. Nor is there any mention of the advantage they have because of their key location, right on the ground floor of the main hospital in the city – a location they procured shortly after the hospital was built.

Their negative attitude is evident with their employees also. It’s as if they’re just waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop” And the way they act, when that shoes drops … they act like they’ll be waiting in line for a bed at the homeless shelter on Montana Ave. They don’t say it, but it’s almost like it’s a requirement to shop there if you live in Billings. After all, they’re a local business – and aren’t you supposed to support local business!

And unfortunately, this is just one of the examples I regularly encounter here with local businesses. Thank god for my favorite pet store to help balance things out. Who can resist when it’s time for Reptilemania!

Here’s my conundrum. I am adamantly in favor of buying local. Personally I think by bringing the power back to Main Street, we can retake our country and our lives from the unscrupulous corporate hacks that have hijacked it. This extra injection of money and entrepreneurial opportunity into our communities can go to help our children’s schools, our elderly, our less fortunate … and on top of it, our own wallets.

Can man crop

Be a partner in your community’s local businesses

I’m willing to you give the first chance if you’re local, and I may even give you a second chance if you screw up. But you have to show me you want my business and you care about me. If you don’t already know me – take the time to get to know me. Then call me by my name – and remember what I buy (or at least if I buy it a lot). If you get a deal on something you know I like, let me know and let me share in your savings. Show me you’re part of the community and want to make it better … like the chain stores can’t. Make me part of your extended family – and I’ll do the same and I’ll be loyal. It won’t matter if I have to pay a couple of dollars more – you’re family.

But to justify those couple of dollars, you have to show it and meet me half way. I don’t want a “woe is me” attitude from your employees – or you. I want you to understand that having a business in my community, in my neighborhood – is not a right, it’s a privilege … a privilege that can be taken away by me, and by my neighbors.

If you’re cool with all this – then you’ll have a great customer. You’ll have great customer that’s loyal and will refer their friends to you.

My conditions may seem a bit harsh, but they have to be. Owning a business isn’t supposed to be easy. But at least you know where I stand and you can act accordingly. And if I see something I think you can improve on, don’t be defensive … because I’m going to tell you. Most people just defect and run to the big box stores without any notice. I’m laying my cards on the table. It’s not only in your best interest to get better … it’s in mine and our community’s. We want you to stay in business.

My goal here is to increase the communication between the merchant and the customer. This communication will result in a feedback loop that will make the small business compete better against the Wall Street chains. Be an informal consultant for your community’s local businesses. Tell them what they did right … and tell them what they’ve done wrong (but do it tactfully). Your community’s small businesses are not your adversaries. On the contrary, they’re your teammate in your effort to strengthen the community you all live in. The enemy are the big box stores and chain stores that “grab the money and run” to a place far, far away.

Be your local business’s eyes and ears in the community. If they don’t provide something you have to go to a chain for … tell them. Be a partner in their business. Help create the symbiotic relationships and infrastructure that will strengthen your community … not weaken it. It’s through commerce with these local merchant that a community takes on its unique identity and nurtures the ‘space’ that acts as a conduit to rebuilding the ‘Middle Ring’ of neighborhood relationships necessary for a community to function at its fullest.

I wish just that being local was enough for me to be a customer “forever after.”  But like any relationship, it takes work and work … and then some more work.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can find on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+

Don’t fall for Starbuck and “Staying off the Interstate”

About ten years ago I took a road trip from Los Angeles to visit my parents in Montana. After a couple of weeks, I drove back via my sister’s place in Nebraska. When leaving Christy’s place, I thought I’d try something. What if I made it all the way home to Southern California without touching an interstate highway or spending a cent at a national chain company.

It’s too easy to default to the easy … get on the highway, get off and eat McDonalds – and get back on the highway, and on and on. But isn’t there more?

My first stop was in Oklahoma. It was noon … lunch time, on two lane State Road 14. Out of nowhere was a little grocery store … and next to it was this huge black gentleman laboring over a barbecue barrel. This was lunch! After three dollars, great conversation – and the best pulled pork barbecue sandwich I have ever had, I drove on.

Now I could go on about the next two days. I could talk about Pie Town (the pumpkin pie is to die for!) … but I think you know how it’ll turn out. Every stop was memorable. Little I did know that venture would result in a business and life purpose I’m putting in play today.

Pie Town Cafe

Understand who your community really is … and who it isn’t

In the iconic 1950’s play, ‘The Rainmaker, by Richard Nash, a charming con-man named Starbuck arrives in a drought-ridden western rural town in Depression era America – and promises to bring rain in exchange for $100. The metaphor of Starbuck is alive and well in the 21st century. The difference however is that rain has been replaced with jobs and prosperity. And Starbuck has been replaced by big box retailer. They role into communities throughout the country with their caravans of snake oil promises and roll out with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) in tax and real estate concessions. However, the jobs turn out to be part-time minimum wage and the prosperity is disguised as instruction in getting food stamps.

A Civic Economics study from 2007 showed the state of Arizona’s then-$5 million contract with OfficeMax was causing the state to lose $500,000 per year in economic leakage. The methodology shows OfficeMax did not offer 62 percent of their employees any health-care benefits, costing Arizona taxpayers significant money to support them through the state’s health-care plan, which drains the economy.

BOSSIER CITY, LA – When Bill Winkler opened his small archery shop, he was prepared to compete against businesses large and small – but not against a government-financed competitor. “The day Bass Pro opened here in Bossier, the number of arrows I sold dropped off by 50 percent,” says Winkler.

A Bass Pro Shop opened in Bossier City in 2005 after city officials promised to give the retailer $38 million to pay for the construction of the 106,000-square-foot store in this Red River community. Such deals are commonplace.

Cabelas

Both Bass Pro Shops and its archrival, Cabela’s, sell hunting and fishing gear in cathedral-like stores featuring taxidermied wildlife, gigantic fresh-water aquarium exhibits and elaborate outdoor reproductions within the stores. The stores are billed as job generators by both companies when they are fishing for development dollars. But the firms’ economic benefits are minimal and costs to taxpayers are great.

An exhaustive investigation conducted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity found that the two competing firms together have received or are promised more than $2.2 billion from American taxpayers over the past 15 years.

Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” says Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.

All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars … they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”

City and county officials are vastly overmatched in this game of sleight of hand. All they can see is the land of Oz, not the price to be paid getting there or the tactics of the ones behind the curtain. So when some politician, left or right, points to the supposed needed support of some government intervention (a regulation, a mandate, a subsidy or a tax break), they have created an alliance with big business. And unfortunately by default, they’ve made their enemy free-enterprise and our local Main Street entrepreneurs.

This is where you need to understand who your community really is. It’s not your Wal-Mart, it’s not your Target, it’s not your corporate owned McDonalds and it’s not the big box store down the street. They may be in your neighborhood … but they’re not your neighbors – they are not your community!

These faceless corporations are here to take – to take your money, to take the life blood out of the locally owned firms who are your community. The more you give them – the less you have to give to those businesses that really matter, your neighbors – your real community.

Four years ago, September, 2011 – I visited my home town, Minot, North Dakota. Earlier in the year, Minot was devastated by a “once in a century” flood … a flood that caused the evacuation and of one-third of its population and the destruction of countless home and businesses. I went back with my friend Sean Key to attend a benefit relief concert put on by the Black Eyed Peas. The B.E.P. had never even been to Minot, yet they raised nearly $2 million for the victims.

????????????

Surrounding the stage, were the logos of the various businesses that contributed their time, effort and money to the relief efforts. Of these sponsors – all were local. None of them were national, even though many had presence in the town. There’s a Walmart in Minot. There’s a Target in Minot, and the there’s three McDonalds. But only the local businesses gave their time, their effort and resources.

Inequality isn’t a problem of the size of the pie

Much has been said about the unprecedented inequality we face in America, for good reason. Since the recession of 2008 virtually all economic recovery has been usurped by the top 1% and mega-corporations they represent. The rest of us are in virtually the same place as we were six years ago. Unemployment may be lower, but underemployment is higher and earning are frozen in time.

There’s not a lack of money in America. It’s going to wrong the places, accumulating (with no outflow) like those pools of stagnant water in your backyard that breed mosquitos. Any time you patronize a national retailer over a locally owned business, you are sending money out of your community. You are sending money to offshore accounts, to bloated institutions or worse yet greedy, self-serving CEOs. Every time you use Bank of America over your local credit union, or Home Depot over your local hardware store … you are killing your community, it’s losing a little bit of what makes it different – what makes it what it is.

40% to 50% percent of each dollar spent at a locally owned business stays in the community. Yet only 15% percent does with a large corporate entity, like Walmart, Target or Home Depot. What does that tell you! That’s 30% that could go to local parks or local business owners that would in turn spend it at other local business owners and on and on.

Will you let your community be just another mile marker on the interstate highway of sameness

There’s more to it than just economics though. Inside you there’s a part of your community. It’s what makes you what you are. The people, the experiences you had grabbing your morning coffee at the local coffee shop. It’s that antique table in your kitchen you bought at the second-hand store on Main Street. They’re part of who you are. It’s memories. What type of memories do you conjure up from a box store? Do you want to want your defacto town square, the place where your community congregates be Wal-Mart? Believe it or not, in much of rural America, that is exactly becoming the case.

This phenomenon is not happening by accident. These corporate retail behemoths recognize this is the ultimate market position. Not only do they crowd out smaller competition, they become a community’s sociological hub. And these hubs they create will not care about your town’s culture, its history and least of all – what’s made it different. On the contrary, your town will be made up of the same – the same as all the other towns and cities up and down the interstate … indistinguishable from each other except a different number on a mile marker.

Those communities that choose not arm themselves with the tools of grass-roots local sustainability will be left in the wake of big box store corporate boom and abandonment. Those communities still ‘wowed’ by the lies of Wall Street and the erroneous promises they make will be left to scrape for the economic and intellectual crumbs they feel benevolent enough to leave behind as they march from neighborhood to neighborhood re-enacting Sherman’s insidious Civil War ‘March to the Sea.’ Community 3.0 is my idea of the toolbox that I believe can provide the ammunition for us locals to fight back.

Interstate highway

Do you want your community to be one ‘off the interstate,’ creating memories that’ll make you smile when you’re sitting on your porch years down the road. Or do you want it to be yet just another mile marker of sameness.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

“Cross-pollination” and Creating Your Own Renaissance

A few years ago, when I still lived down in Los Angeles, I was on my morning walk through West L.A. when I ran across a homeless man collecting cans and bottles from a dumpster. I stopped and we talked for about for fifteen minutes.

We talked about a lot things; the weather, the BP oil spill and eventually the economy. His take on the economy was that he thought things were getting worse, rather than better – as what we’d been hearing from the news media. “How did you come up with that?”  I asked him.

“Well I see more cheap brand cans in the garbage than I used to. Even last year when things were supposedly worse, people still drank Coke and Budweiser. But now it’s changed.”  It’s Shasta and Natural Light.

His astute observation was definitely not a perspective I wouldn’t have gotten through my normal channels. But it made sense – and for this locale it was probably more accurate than any economics professor would have come up with a few blocks down the street at UCLA.

Dumpster

The Medici Effect … circa 2015

At the end of the Dark Ages, during the 13th century, poets, artists, painters, sculptors and the like came to Florence, Italy to study and collaborate thanks to patronization of the wealthy Medici family.  Those sponsored by the Medicis included  Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Galileo, Boticelli and Michelangelo. Many scholars believe this melding of different backgrounds and disciplines ushered in a significant portion of the Renaissance.

Imagine if we used this same cross-pollination strategy of  backgrounds and experiences to create environments like this today. Maybe we won’t see Renaissance figures on the scale Galileo and Michelangelo, but for our communities it could significantly change the welfare and wellbeing of us and our fellow inhabitants.

“We need a marriage ceremony between the humanities and social and behavioral studies. Only then will we be able to start solving real-life problems in these disciplines.” ~ Thomas Scheff (UC Santa Barbara)

Every fall Mayo Clinic, one of the most acclaimed medical facilities in the world, conducts an innovation conference to explore how ‘people power health’ can redefine the dynamics of health and health care. This conference isn’t just for medical professionals, rather it’s cross-discipline. Not only are people from other industries and interests allowed to attend … they are encouraged. Mayo routinely collaborates on processes and strategies with other Minnesota corporate giants such as Target, Medtronic and Best Buy to achieve higher levels of customer service and hopefully satisfaction. Mayo Clinic treasures the value of cross-pollination. 

“People bring different cultures, backgrounds, and personalities to the table — and those differences shape how they think. Some people are analytical thinkers, while others thrive in creative zones. Some are meticulous planners, and others love spontaneity. By mixing up the types of thinkers in the workplace, companies can stimulate creativity, spur insight, and increase efficiency.” ~ Deloitte (Business Insider)

The benefits of cross-pollination extends past the corporate world also. In the excellent Vanity Fair piece, “An Oral History of the Laurel Canyon,” Linda Ronstadt articulated the societal benefits, “The good thing about musicians in terms of making advances in racial discrimination or sexual-gender identification is that musicians don’t give a shit as long as you can play. If you could play, hallelujah.”

But to cross-pollinate ourselves we have to expose ourselves and create relationships with people we wouldn’t otherwise. Humans are creatures of habit. We tend to do the same things, associate with same type of people and be influenced by the same sources as we always have. Strength comes in diversity and the synthesis of this diversity. On the contrary, if we limit our exposure; social, professional and politically to only those like us … we only further entrench our beliefs and ideologies.

Adherence to the status quo is a habit. Some aspects of the status quo are fine, and change for the sake of change can often be problematic. But even more than ever, the ability to not only accept change, but embrace it is a mandatory life skill.

Resistance to change is a very broad ‘habit’ to try to break. It’s composed of a multitude of components. And that’s how it needs to be addressed, one component at a time. You can’t change everything at the same time.

Gradually, block by block, this ‘doing the same thing, the same way, at the same time’ can be chipped away at. Even changing the time you get up in the morning or go to bed at night is a step. Change what you eat for breakfast, the route you take to work and even the method you get to work. Just taking public transportation when you normally drive can be a huge change. Eventually, this phobia of ‘the different’ will become less debilitating. And maybe even change will become exciting, something to look forward to … not fear.

Now is the time to get out of your comfort zone

If you are a doctor, hang with a plumber. If you’re white, talk to a black person. Take the bus sometimes (no – people on buses don’t bite). If you live on the west side, have dinner on the east side. And most of all if you’re old (yes Boomers you are old) … get some insight from someone young – someone that’s not your own kid.

Our brains are nothing more than synaptic connections which are built and strengthened through habitual activity and thought. Build some new ones. God only knows we could use more.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.” ~ Steve Jobs

The two sides of a mind

Sociology of the American neighborhoods and ‘Extreme Empathy’

The French political philosopher Alex de Tocqueville theorized that the concept of American township and its extension, the neighborhood, was the reason for the envied American exceptionalism of the 1800 and 1900s. In Europe people resided around common characteristics such as language or ethnicity.

“But beneath it all, our history of broad inclusion is not rooted in some blithe paean to the American generosity of the American spirit. Rather, like the foundation for America’s economic ingenuity and political accommodation, our commitment to melding new and different people together was forged in the rhythms of everyday life.

Townshipped community was unparalleled in assimilation because neighbors weren’t able to avoid one another; quite the opposite, they were frequently compelled to become codependent. The very essence of American exceptionalism was born from the architecture of American community.

It’s impossible to overstate how important our unique sociology has been to the nation’s dynamism. In the United States, our “little platoons,’ Edmund Burke’s term for the contacts who comprised the core of any individual’s social universe (that is middle rings) – were organized around the diversity of people who lived nearby – the people who comprised the local townships.

In Europe, by contrast, the network of people who shared the same class or language or profession were more likely to define any individual’s contacts. And so America’s exceptional capacity to metabolize the infusion of new ideas, new cultures, and new populations wasn’t derived by some commitment to inclusion. America has been unique in its social fluidity. Even with all the blatant counter examples, through most of the 20th Century, American were relatively unencumbered by division. Life in the United States provided citizens with an unusual degree of access and exposure.” ~ Marc Dunkleman, “The Vanishing Neighbor”

To forget this phenomenon and not take advantage of it is a great disservice. Of course we look at this as an advantage for the community. But first we open our mind individually and let these different views and experiences in.

A community is the product of its people. Diversity is an advantage if not a necessity. A community is a living thing, a microcosm, and a lack of diversity makes itself open to disease (metaphorically speaking). Social inbreeding creates a weak species, vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. And a community that only relies on past thinking will not be able to combat the problems of the future.

Every member of your community is unique and adds to its fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. It’s up to us to find it and help them see it. To view our neighbors and fellow community dwellers like this I call, “Extreme Empathy.” “Extreme Empathy” is the basis of my vision for the new evolution of the physical living space, Community 3.0.

Now is time focus on inclusion, not retreat into ‘personal protectionism.’ Resist the temptation of “sameness.” Step outside your comfort zone. You’ll never know what lies on the other side.

And who knows … maybe your next source of inspiration may come next to a dumpster.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

Buy local … or maybe not!

“Every time I step out on stage, I know the people in the audience work hard to afford a ticket to one of my shows … so I have to prepare, work as hard as I can and do my best to make sure they get their money’s worth” ~ Alicia Moore (aka P!NK)

The chorus of “Buy Local” has become the new “Buy American.” This is especially the case with all the corporate shenanigans going on. The executives of JP Morgan, Wells Fargo and B of A should be in jail. Wal-Mart is doing its best to decimate local economies, forcing themselves into communities by all nefarious means possible. And twenty-nine hours a week is the new full-time, since it falls under the federally mandated health insurance requirements.

The only way us “common folk” can fight back is to buy local. And it makes sense. Only 15% of the revenue from a big box store like Wal-Mart or Target finds its way into the local economy – while the rest goes to suppliers, stockholders and C-level management to points unknown. Compare that to 45+% that stays in town with a locally owned store. Hard to argue with those numbers. You buy locally and you help your neighbors and probably yourself as well.

Red Lodge, Montana

While buying locally may cost a few more cents on the dollar, I would hope that still most us would be willing to help out our community. And by patronizing local business, in theory you should get better service. After all, your neighbors know you or at least should feel a “kinship” with you.

Technically local businesses should have an unfair advantage. In addition to their knowledge of their customers, they can adjust to local market conditions. In the time it takes for a big box store to even get market intelligence – their local competition is out the gate with a new set of products and a promotion to match. Combine that with their superior customer service – any premium put on big box price should be discounted.

In theory, this should be the case. But such is not necessarily the way it is.

Recently, I’ve been helping out my parents in Montana. As with most people in their 70’s and 80’s, health-care is a constant issue. And central to elderly health-care is prescription drugs and their relationship with their pharmacy. Such is the case with my parents and their primary pharmacy – which is locally owned.

My parents have been very good customer of (a pharmacy that will remain nameless) for twenty plus years. You would think that sort of relationship would warrant at the very least, good service. Rather than go into copious detail, lets just say … the help is rude, seldom is a prescription sent out when promised, and they charge extra just to put something in the mail. And don’t you dare bring up the idea of a less expensive alternative drug. Who am I to say anything! I don’t have the letters after my name.

Yet this business will be the first to complain about the invasion of Walgreen and CVS.

“We can’t compete because of the bulk buying advantage the giants have. We can’t compete against their advertising budgets.”

No mention is made of the fact that (a pharmacy that will remain nameless) has been a member of the Billings community for decades, serving generations of customers. Nor is there any mention of the advantage they have because of their key location, right on the ground floor of the main hospital in the city – a location they procured shortly after the hospital was built.

Their negative attitude is evident with their employees also. It’s as if they’re just waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop” And the way they act, when that shoes drops … they act like they’ll be waiting in line for a bed at the homeless shelter on Montana Ave. They don’t say it, but it’s almost like it’s a requirement to shop there if you live in Billings. After all,  they’re a local business – and aren’t you supposed to support local business!

And unfortunately, this is just one of the examples I regularly encounter here with local businesses. Thank god for my favorite pet store to help balance things out.

Here’s my conundrum. I am adamantly in favor of buying local. Personally I think by bringing the power back to Main Street, we can retake our country and our lives from the unscrupulous corporate hacks that have hijacked it. This extra flow of money into our communities can go to help our children’s schools, our elderly, our less fortunate … and on top of it, our own wallets.

But to all you local businesses – please help me out!  I’m willing to you give the first chance if you’re local, and I may even give you a second chance if you screw up. But you have to show me you want my business and you care about me. If you don’t already know me – take the time to get to know me. Then call me by my name – and remember what I buy (or at least if I buy it a lot). If you get a deal on something you know I like, let me know and let me share in your savings. Show me you’re part of the community and want to make it better … like the chain stores can’t. Make me part of your extended family – and I’ll do the same and I’ll be loyal. It won’t matter if I have to pay a couple of dollars more – you’re family.

But to justify those couple of dollars, you have to show it and meet me half way. I don’t want a “woe is me” attitude from your employees – or you. I want you to understand that having a business in my community, in my neighborhood – is not a right, it’s a privilege … a privilege that can be taken away by me, and by my neighbors.

If you’re cool with all this – then you’ll have a great customer. You’ll have great customer that’s loyal and will refer his friends to you.

My conditions may seem a bit harsh, but they have to be. Owning a business isn’t supposed to be easy. But at least you know where I stand and you can act accordingly. And if I see something I think you can improve on, don’t be defensive … because I’m going to tell you. Most people just defect and run to the big box stores without any notice. I’m laying my cards on the table. It’s not only in your best interest to get better … it’s in mine and our community’s. We want you to stay in business.

I wish just being local was enough for me to be a customer “forever after.” But I think giving you the first (and second) chance is fair enough.

Now the next move is yours.

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You can find on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+.

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The death of “Small Town U.S.A.” … or maybe not!

(I wrote this a couple years ago – but it’s probably more relevant today than ever!)

A couple of weeks ago I saw an MSNBC piece on an independent movie made about the small town of Medora, Indiana. Medora has a population of about 600 and is known, notoriously, for its high school basketball team, and its 2009 twenty-two game losing streak and their pursuit to win just one game. But there’s much more about the film than just basketball – and there’s also much more about Medora.

Like many, many other small towns around America, they’re struggling for their survival. In Medora’s case, they’re reeling from losing a plastics factory, the town’s main employer … as well as staring at the possibility of even losing their identity, their high school. Below is the interview on MSNBC with directors Andrew Cohn and Davey Rothbart.

A major tenant of this blog, “On the Road to Your Perfect World,” has been community empowerment and having their people “take back the power” and  with that having a say in their future. I’ve been lamenting ad nauseam that our government will not be there for us, and nor will corporate America. It’s up to us to fight back and save our communities, and save our neighborhoods. Because if we don’t – nobody will.

But what if it’s not that easy. What if the people can’t help their community, can’t be there to help their neighbors …and maybe can’t even help themselves.

I was having a conversation on Twitter with a friend of mine, @celticperegrini, about the skills will needed to succeed or even survive in the coming years, especially in America’s small towns. That conversation led to this post.

The death of “Small Town U.S.A.”

The standard answer is – go to college, study math and sciences or health care, and so on. But before you jump both feet into mountains of debt, let’s talk about some thing even more fundamental, attitudes.

So here is my idea of the proper skill set “Small Town U.S.A.” circa 2012 and beyond. Actually, it’s more a set of attitudes. Because without the proper frame of mind – all the training money can buy, will be all for not.

  • Embrace change and be flexible. Expect your life to be turned upside down tomorrow when you wake up. Strike the word security from your vocabulary. The only security you’ll have in 2012, especially in a small town, is yourself and ability to navigate the inevitable changes that will “slap you in the face” when you least expect it. Don’t be pre-occupied with trying to hang on to “the way things were.” The only constant in life is change … so deal with it!
  • Embrace technology. Technology and specifically the internet is everywhere, and embedded in everything. Technology will buffer you from the ups and down of a local economy. Become adept at social media – for social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) will widen your reach of contacts and ultimately the support when you need it most. The internet will also enable you to create income being a “location independent” micro-entrepreneur.
  • Embrace your community. Your community, your neighbors, are your primary safety net and support structure. Don’t be a recluse. Lend a hand whenever you can. Be the “go-to person” in your town. Be the “help” leader that people will follow. Be the one that is the first one to rally the people to make things better for all. A positive, action oriented attitude is contagious.
  • Embrace the youth. Make your town the one that welcomes young people. For it’s the young people who will create the new opportunities, the opportunities that will keep your town’s death at bay. Don’t be part of a town that only tries to “hang to yesterday,” and tries to prevent any intrusion into this allegedly idyllic time … the time that is no longer and never will be. Business owners need to part of the solution also. Mentoring and internship programs do wonders keeping your young talent at home, rather than having them leave town for better opportunities.
  • Focus on businesses that serve out-of-town customers. If you’re an entrepreneur, stay away from ventures that serve only your fellow community members, especially if the services you offer already exist locally. Don’t depend on revenue only generated from your community. Be responsible for bringing needed money into the community rather than cannibalize the existing businesses of your neighbors.

Ultimately, all the above suggestions are about change. People generally want things to be the same or the way they were. Small towns, often populated primarily with older residents – are especially resistance to change. It’s this attitude that decimates a community. “Small Town U.S.A.” doesn’t need to be a thing of the past, only a distant memory.

It needs only to change … to change its attitudes.

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I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg.

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“The Alliance” … a lesson we should learn from Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull

On June 25, 1876, two mortal enemies found that the differences they had between them paled in comparison to the a threat both encountered.  After the Civil War, the U.S. government turned its attention to the Wild West and the fight against the Indians – or as they called them, “savages.”

Two warring tribes, the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne were being relentlessly pursued by the U.S. Army – and specifically, General Armstrong Custer.  After numerous skirmishes with minor military leaders, they learned of Custer’s intention of attacking them in Southern Montana.

Separately neither the Sioux nor the Cheyenne had the upper hand … but together, maybe the result could be different. Unprecedentedly, Lakota chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull met secretly with Cheyenne chief Gall and devised a plan for their mutual survival.

The Sioux encampment of 6,000 plus was set on the banks of the Little Big Horn River in Montana.  Starting the night of the June 23, Sitting Bull moved the Sioux women and children down river out of harms way while the warrior chief Crazy Horse amassed the Sioux warriors in the cover of brush on the river bank.  After numerous skirmishes with with Gall and his Cheyenne on high ground on 25th, the next day Custer moved down towards the banks of the Little Big Horn only to come face-to-face with the Sioux.

The infamous battle of Custer’s Last Stand lasted only twenty minutes with Custer’s army being annihilated.

While the current economic climate and fate of  local business may not equate to the dire situation the Sioux and Cheyenne faced … lessons can still be learned.

Over the last couple month in my series, “The People Have the Power,” I have lamented relentlessly the need for us as consumers to support our local communities by choosing Main Street and local business over Wall Street and their chains and box stores. I’ve tried to drive home the harm that knee-jerk decisions to shop at Wal-Mart can do to your community. And I’ve pushed the need we have to pull our money out of the big banks, like B of A and Wells Fargo and put it in local banks and credit unions instead.

But I’m afraid that us, the consumers, may not be able to it alone. Main Street itself is going to have to hold up their end also.

As small business owners, your enemies of the past, the competition down street – may well be your life line to survival now. It’s time to take some lessons from Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Gall.

It’s time to band together.

It’s time to form alliances with your fellow businesses, even if they’re in the same industry. Who says a pizza parlor can’t co-op with a Thai restaurant.

It’s time to not only support local farmers, but encourage them to produce specialty goods that only Main Street businesses and restaurants can provide.

It’s time to work with local marketers and put together Main Street based loyalty programs encouraging community shopping and participation through combined Main Street wide frequent visits.

And it’s even time to organization Main Street “street fairs” featuring local artists, musicians and fare. While I’m not saying you exclude national chains, they will likely not want to participate in these type of bohemian events.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn

New thinking is not just a luxury anymore.  It’s mandatory.  Business as usual has become no business at all.

If you ever visit the site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, you will see scores of small white crosses running down the hill towards the river.  They represent where the Army soldiers fell and died.

While the current times may not deliver your little white cross … it’ll deliver somebody’s. Take advantage of these times to think new and bury old conceptions and archaic business practices.

Do you want to be Crazy Horse, or do want to be Custer?

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg
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