No Business Left Behind

I have a confession to make. Before my life in computing, I was a stockbroker, and flirted with going into the family business, which is real estate (see a somewhat complete list of jobs I’ve held here. It’s good for a laugh). My father is a certified tax assessor and real estate appraiser who specializes in business analysis, and special properties like mines, marinas, quarries, golf courses, and the like. My mother worked in mortgage banking for 15 years, on the operations end of the big machine that packages loans for the secondary market, and that business also did construction, renovations and brokerage. She left that business when she remarried, and opened her own consignment shop for baby clothes and toys, which was rather successful. I had an uncle who was a broker and also ran a mortgage outfit for some time, and two other uncles who were not in real estate opened an international courier service in the late 80’s which is still running today.

In short, I have a business background. I started reading the Wall Street Journal at 16 and got my series 7 license 2 months after I turned 20. I had a client portfolio and mastered the HP-12C financial calculator before I could legally drink.

If there’s one thing; one common thread that has worked its way through every successful deal, venture, business, consultancy, whatever, it is this: it is about people.

This brings us to…. a bar, actually.

I was at Triumph in Princeton tonight. They have a ‘cask conditioned beer night’ on the first Monday of each month, where they tap a barrel of a craft brewed beer that isn’t on the normal draft schedule. It’s kind of like a limited-edition, special-reserve, exclusive type thing. I heard about it because I’m on a mailing list for the local brew club (oh yeah, I brew beer, too). Had I not been on that list, I would never had heard of it. Had I not been a brewer, I would never have been on that list, and I wouldn’t know much at all about Triumph.

Triumph was kind of a sad site this evening. At 5:30, which is to say “during the happy hour leading up to the exclusive cask unveiling”, I was able to walk up to my choice of stools at the bar. There were people there, but few of them seemed to have any idea that anything special was going on that night. The brewer and his employees were gathered round the barrel, which they had put about 3 stools down from me on top of the bar, and they were discussing why nobody ever seems to show up to these events, and they seemed to conclude that they should change the night they hold it on.

Then I wondered how I would ever know which night they changed it to. Then I thought about their website. I had been to it a number of times. It’s very fancy, but in reality, it’s a brochure. The front page is all glossy and flashy and stuff, but there’s not much substance there. Just a bunch of ho-hum mystery meat navigation and cool graphics.

Where are the people? Where is the beer blog telling me what’s going on and why beer matters and why I should care about what’s going on at Triumph? Where is their involvement in the local brewing community? Are they involved? What, exactly, on that web site, is supposed to ever make me want to come back? Heck, what on that site even engages me to make me click on more of the links?

In short, there’s nothing people-oriented about the web site. So the people-oriented stuff must be at the bar, right? Wrong.

The head brewer interacted, so far as I could tell, with employees, or people he knew. For crying out loud, the bar tender knew I brewed beer, I was the only non-employee at the bar drinking what came out of the barrel, and not only did the brewer not speak a single word to gauge my interest in the beer or see if I was a ‘beer person’, NO employee seemed to be speaking to *anyone* that wasn’t an employee in any way that wasn’t obviously in pursuit of a transaction (ie “what can I get you?”). Now, I’m not so anti-social that I need someone to reach out to me to be social, but this crew just seemed really driven to seem unavailable or something. It was quite a phenomena to behold, especially in a bar. A good bar is almost solely about social interaction. The money happens to fall out of that.

So… what… Triumph is just entitled to my money by virtue of its existence? Get real. That business, like every other business, is about people. Whether it’s technology, real estate, the service industry or anything else, the most successful operations are those that foster a community around their business and products. Empower your target audience. Don’t just give them a glossy about how to find parking for your store – make sure that they’re thinking of you as an authority on anything remotely related to your business. Modern software has made it dead simple to cover the technical end of community building with relatively little cost. The only thing left is to come up with ways to empower your loyal fans; to enable them to interact with each other, to talk about things related to your business.

In the case of Triumph, they could start a site that encourages brewers, beer enthusiasts, foodies, and service industry folk to interact and get interesting new perspectives on beer, brewing, and how beer and food are prepared and served. This would be supplied absolutely for free, and would also link to a blog that stays updated with the latest rants or thoughts of the head brewer, which, of course, feeds the conversation through various means. Of course, users who register on the site can be apprised of events, new menu items, and, oh, I dunno, the new cask night schedule via email, or (gasp!) via an ical feed that they can subscribe to from any standard calendar client! The entire customer base would be virtually plugged right into the business!

That last paragraph is not *even* the tip of the iceberg. Community building isn’t a simple task, and it takes time, and a good bit of humility, realism, and social skill. If you sit down, and without thinking about money (at first, bear with me) and think about what a community around your product might look like, what form it might take, what common threads would attract people to the community, how to empower them or foster their interaction, you’re likely to come up with a flood of good ideas. Write them down. Keep the ideas in your pocket. Look at them when you’re not doing anything. Review them. Gnaw on them. Those thoughts will evolve into a method of fostering a community that is right for your product or business, and from that, methods on how to link all of this traffic together and turn it into dollars will (for business-minded folk) almost fall right out of the new world you’ve created.

For more on community building, there’s a good post about it geared to technology outfits by Guy Kawasaki, and the high-level concepts apply to any business. Be sure to see the comments for other views on community building, and (indeed!) an example of how blogs encourage the formation of communities (in this case, around a respected business figure).

Hope this helps, and please feel free to share your ideas and links about the community building process!

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