|April 21, 2010||Volume 9 Number 10 Issue 258|
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Well, I managed to stay on topic for the third week in a row. I finish up the down and dirty methods this week.
From Café to Walled Cityby Jim Green
Each day I try to walk for about two hours. As part of the walk, I stop in at a local establishment for coffee. The chap that runs it is the ultimate example of an entrepreneur in tune with his clients' needs. Try to keep in mind that success is not defined by how much money you make, but rather how close you come to achieving your own personal goals. Although he must make enough money to live, the chap’s major goal is to make a difference to the life of the people he serves.
In the Beginning
Originally, his business started out as a limited menu café, catering especially to the lunch time crowd from the nearby high school. The area around the café is mainly lower income, with a large percentage of the families dependent on outside agencies for their income. The café initially had some success, and he was able to interact with the students, and influence some of them to see the importance of an education, and to attend school regularly. Part of his influence was due to his ability to attract prominent people to come and spend an hour or two talking to students and adults alike. To facilitate this, he took out a couple of booths and brought in chairs and couches to provide a more relaxed, social atmosphere.
Although he was reaching some of the students, he really wasn't attracting many of the adults from the neighbourhood. He was however, attracting movers and shakers from the city to his establishment and forming some strong liaisons.
After listening to the needs of the community, he decided to make some changes to his product offerings. A local church started to offer a regular free lunch program, and this, excuse the pun, ate into his restaurant business. Motivated by both financial and “program” needs, he decided to revamp the entire establishment. He removed several of the booths, and with donations of equipment and time from some of his “regulars”, set up an Internet area with desktop computers. Anyone from the neighbourhood was allowed to use the computers on the honour system, with students doing homework receiving preference.
Many people in the neighbourhood do not have telephones, and were really pleased to be able to drop over and make necessary calls. Children started to demand to use the phone, and were quickly taught that demanding their right to use the phone had a very negative result, whereas, asking politely produced rapid positive results. About this time, the owner realized that there was a need for photocopying and faxing, so a machine was obtained, and another profit centre was born.
Once word of these resources spread, adults from the community started showing up regularly. While helping folks use the Internet, the owner learned that most of his clients did not have bank accounts, and were forced to cash their cheques at payday loan companies for significant fees. Sensing a needed service that could also be a business opportunity, an alliance was quickly formed with a credit card company that allowed him to cash cheques by putting the money instantly on prepaid credit cards. Several times a month, when the different organizations send out cheques, there is quite a flurry of card activity at the centre.
The requests for Internet access grew, and the demand for food all but disappeared, so more booths were removed and computer work stations installed. At this point, computer usage was starting to overshadow his business and take an inordinate amount of the owner’s time. Some folks were home steading on the computers and tempers were starting to flare, so a timecodee system was introduced to automatically limit usage. Soon people were offering to pay for additional time, and a new profit centre was born.
As part of his community activist role, the owner did not want people without any money to be squeezed off the computers entirely. First he instituted a program where anyone was able to receive a free 15 minute time code. Then, since he had always allowed those without financial means to do things around the centre to “earn” a soda, bag of chips, etc., he just expanded it to include computer time.
A Foreign Concept
The interesting thing here is that most of these kids had never experienced the idea of working for pay, and neither had many of their parents. During the winter, I had offered several of them a “job” shovelling my driveway, and no one was the least bit interested in working. Now, most days when I stop by for my coffee, the owner will be approached several times by children from 6 to 16 (occasionally even 18 or 20) asking if there is anything that they can do to earn computer time. Chalk another one up for social action.
At some point, people started asking the owner, “When’s the next bus?” So he set up a computer to show the scheduled arrival time of the buses at the four adjacent stops. He responded quickly to the request for bus tickets and became a ticket agent. He sold individual tickets at the discounted, bulk price he paid, and got a steady stream of buyers. People generally picked up a coffee or newspaper to go with their tickets, but frequently had nickels, dimes and quarters “left over.” Since the kids had been agitating for penny candy, the owner looked around, but was only able to find a source of nickel candy. The adults buying bus tickets seem to buy more candy than the kids.
A convenience store nearby is the source of exorbitantly priced foodstuffs, so a food corner was set up. Some of the clients pick up the “super specials” at the chains, and he is able to re-sell them way below the convenience store, and make a tidy profit. Right now, he is forming a group that will meet once a week to plan menus for the week, and trade recipes and coupons. The owner hopes that it will evolve into a mini buying co-op so that they can buy in bulk and share in the savings. He will benefit because the folks will need coffee and snacks while they are meeting ;>)
To sum up, the business provides for the needs of the community - bank, post office, ticket agent, Internet café, candy store, grocery store, business centre, etc. while at the same time providing a safe place for kids (Did I tell you that one mother regularly drops off her 5 and 7 year olds for a couple of hours while she works part-time?), social hub for adults, movie nights each weekend, frequent community discussions, a radio club hosted by a local DJ and more. Definitely, a city within the walls of his establishment.
The last time I was in, a little girl about 7 walked up and told me to “scootch over.” She laid out her homework which she expected me to help her with - the kids all know that I am a retired teacher. While I was helping her, I couldn't help but hear a fellow on the phone nearby reply to a question, “Yeah, I'm at the Community Centre, I needed....”
Although it is unlikely that the owner will get rich off this business, he certainly has achieved his goals - the mayor of our city dropped in the other day for coffee and advice because she had heard from so many city councillors how this guy was connected to the needs of the people. What more could a social activist ask.
What's All This To You?
Your goal may be less social and more financial, but the same rule applies, “Listen carefully to your clients and adjust your marketing and product mix to their needs and wants.”
from Your Faithful Editor
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